Updated: Oct 5
The August 16 AP News story, “Plea negotiations could mean no 9/11 defendants face the death penalty, the US tells families” has generated significant controversy and debate. At the heart of the matter is what can be gained from plea agreements: confessions and guilty pleas from the defendants in exchange for life sentences rather than the death penalty. Can plea agreements in the 9/11 case be a means to justice, accountability, and greater information about how the 9/11 attacks were planned and carried out, including most crucially what support the defendants may have received from other individuals, organizations, or governments?
September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, the only 9/11 family organization with NGO status to observe the military commissions at the Guantanamo Naval Base has been advocating for plea agreements since 2017. The experience of our members who collectively have spent hundreds of hours observing the pre-trial hearings that began in 2012, and who speak regularly with the 9/11 prosecutors and defense attorneys, is that a trial may not even begin for many more years. The actual trial would take many years more. Any sentence would be immediately appealed, first in the U.S. Court of Military Commission Review and then through the federal court system, very likely up to the Supreme Court. Given the many irregularities that have occurred in the proceedings so far, a verdict could potentially be overturned.
Plea agreements, which could be made right now, would offer finality: an end to the 9/11 military commission, clear admissions of guilt, and life sentences without parole or any possibility of appeal. Most importantly, each defendant’s plea agreement would be accompanied by a stipulation of facts that would give us far more information about what each of the accused did, when, and how.
All 9/11 family members want justice and accountability. Too many of us have died in the last two decades without either. We all want more complete information. Members of Peaceful Tomorrows share the concerns of so many family members about Saudi support for al-Qaeda in general or specific involvement in the 9/11 attacks, whether by individual Saudi citizens, by Saudi organizations, or by members of the Saudi government. We deserve the facts. But all our experience with the 9/11 case at Guantánamo is that the best, perhaps the only way, we will get to the truth is in stipulations of facts as part of plea agreements with the defendants.