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US Federal Courts Built to Handle Terrorism Cases, says Law Professor

  • Joe DeCapua

There’s been much debate over the decision to use a civilian court to try a young Nigerian accused of trying to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day.

Critics say Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should have been tried by the U.S. military as part of the fight against terrorism. Abdulmutallab, who was on Detroit-bound flight 253, is charged with attempted murder and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.

There’s also the case involving five terrorism suspects, who will be tried in New York in federal court, following their detention at Guantanamo Bay.

Rule of law

The U.S. is prepared to handle terrorism-related trials, says David Crane, a professor at Syracuse University College of Law and former chief prosecutor for the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone.

“We still have to adhere to the rule of law. I think that that’s really critical. If we step away from the rule of law then we’ve kind of walked down the path that the terrorists want us to,” he says.

He says proceedings must follow the Constitution and the framework of domestic law.

Military vs. civilian

Crane says both military and civilian courts adhere to a strict rule of law.

“I actually was a judge advocate and practiced before military courts and they’re very similar to federal courts. The military, the armed forces, really actually hold very fast to the rule of law. It may be a different approach under the Uniform Code of Military justice, but in reality it’s very small,” he says.

Events since September 11th, 2001, may have shaped public perception of military courts for some.

“It’s interesting. I think the image to the public has been skewed based on these military commissions that the president (George Bush) created back in 2002, 2003. And their impression of military justice stems from that,” Crane says.

However, he says the Uniform Code of military Justice was amended in 1969, making military trials very similar to [trials in] federal courts.

“The problem is it’s not so much that the system is inherently wrong. It’s not. In fact, it is a very sophisticated system. The issue is that the public doesn’t understand that and so it’s more of an education issue and a perception issue versus an actuality,” he says.


Some critics of the use of civilian courts to try terrorism suspects say there’s a lack of adequate interrogation. They say much vital intelligence information is lost as a result.

The Syracuse University College of Law professor disagrees.

He says, “I do not subscribe to (former) President Bush’s comment: the rules have changed. Having actually operated …in the world prior to 9/11, we in fact…used federal courts to prosecute these individuals and continued to get appropriate information without having to “torture them” or interrogate them in a way that tainted the process, tainted the perception of justice and also caused legal problems later on.”

He says it’s particularly important to follow the rule of law during times of crisis.

“I talk to my students about the U.S. Constitution as the great gyroscope that allows us to react to situations of national stress throughout our history. But yet the Constitution is that center point, which allows us to remain as a free and open society,” he says.