Terrorism Trials: Civilian Court

Second Circuit Affirms District Court Judgment in Ghailani

By Raffaela Wakeman
Thursday, October 24, 2013, 10:28 AM

Big news out of the Second Circuit today: a three-judge panel has affirmed the conviction and life sentence of Ahmed Ghailani, for his role in the U.S. Embassy bombings in 1998.

Ghailani put forth three broad arguments in his appeal: first, that his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial was violated; second, that the district court erred in instructing the jury on Ghailani’s “conscious avoidance” of the unfolding plot, and that the instruction did not account for Ghailani’s genuine ignorance of his co-defendants’ intentions to bomb embassies; and third, that his life sentence was unreasonable, both procedurally (partly because District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan declined to hold a hearing to discuss the reliability of certain hearsay evidence, which was ultimately introduced during sentencing) and substantively (Ghailani was tortured, and received a life sentence upon conviction of a single count, even though co-conspirators were convicted of numerous counts before also receiving life terms).

Among other Lawfare coverage of this case, I covered the briefing in this case this spring, and Matt W. surmised back in May that Ghailani was unlikely to win his appeal.

Here's the summary of the decision, authored by Circuit Judge Jose A. Cabranes:

  1. In the circumstances presented here, the District Court did not err (or “abuse its discretion,” as that term is properly understood) in determining that the nearly five-year delay between the defendant’s capture and his arraignment, during which time he was interrogated as an enemy combatant and detained at Guantanamo Bay, did not constitute a violation of the Speedy Trial Clause of the Sixth Amendment.
  2. The District Court did not err either in charging the jury with a conscious avoidance instruction or in formulating that instruction.
  3. The defendant’s sentence of life imprisonment, based on a conviction for conspiring to destroy United States buildings and property and directly or proximately causing the deaths of 224 people, was neither procedurally nor substantively unreasonable.

In sum, Judge Kaplan presided over this challenging and complex case with exemplary care and fairness, and we detect no error in the various difficult matters decided throughout the proceedings.