U.S. officials announced Friday that the alleged mastermind of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, will face a civilian trial in a courthouse in New York City, just blocks away from the site of what was the World Trade Center. The decision to try the alleged 9/11 conspirators in a federal civilian court represents a major shift in legal approach by the administration of President Barack Obama.
The announcement was made at a news conference in Washington by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
"After eight years of delay, those allegedly responsible for the attacks of September 11th will finally face justice," said Eric Holder. "They will be brought to New York, to New York, to answer for their alleged crimes in a courthouse just blocks from where the twin towers once stood."
Khalid Sheik Mohammed and the other four alleged co-conspirators are being held at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Bush administration had intended to try them in military tribunals, so the decision by Holder to try them in civilian courts represents a major shift in legal strategy by the Obama administration.
President Obama was asked about the case during a joint news conference with the Japanese prime minister in Tokyo.
"I am absolutely convinced that Khalid Sheik Mohammed will be subject to the most exacting demands of justice," said President Obama. "The American people insist on it. My administration will insist on it."
Holder also told reporters he intends to seek the death penalty for the five alleged 9/11 plotters.
"These were extraordinary crimes and so we will seek maximum penalties," he said. "I fully expect to direct prosecutors to seek the death penalty against each of the alleged 9/11 conspirators."
Holder also announced that five other detainees now being held at Guantanamo will face military commissions, including the alleged mastermind of the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.
The decision to try the alleged 9/11 conspirators in civilian courts was welcomed by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, but criticized by some congressional Republicans as irresponsible and misguided.
This is Congressman Peter King, a Republican from New York:
"This is one of the worst decisions any president has ever made," said Peter King. "By bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and these other murderers to the United States, the president has given them legal rights that they wouldn't have otherwise."
There were also strong reactions from relatives of victims of the 9/11 attacks. Gricel Moyer's son was a New York City firefighter who died in the attack on the World Trade Center.
"I think it is important that it happens in New York," said Gricel Moyer. "That is where the site was of 9-11 and that is where they should be brought to trial. I hope that they get hung and that I am there to watch it."
Beth Weinstein's brother was also a firefighter who perished in the attack.
"While it is good to see someone pay for this crime, it will never bring back the Twin Towers, it will not bring back the people who were lost, An 'eye for an eye' doesn't really work," he said. "There aren't enough eyes."
Trying the 9/11 case in civilian courts also presents some legal challenges, says CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen.
"The decision is a vote of confidence in the federal courts and in civilian prosecutors, and there are still some safeguards in place to ensure that Mohammed doesn't turn the trial into a religious or a political showpiece," said Andrew Cohen. "There also are ways in which the feds [prosecutors] can protect their classified information and still use it at trial, and I think that is why they went in this direction."
Critics argue that the rules of evidence in military tribunals favor the prosecution, and would have been a better alternative to assure conviction.
In addition, defense attorneys are sure to make an issue of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's treatment as a detainee, including the use of a simulated drowning technique known as water boarding.
Juan Zarate served as a counter-terrorism official in the George W. Bush administration.
"This could be a very messy and long trial with questions about how he was detained, the techniques used to extract information from him, and then whether or not any of the things that he has said since are tainted by the nature of his prior detention," said Juan Zarate.
Attorney General Holder says the prosecution decisions announced Friday are part of a larger process to close down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay as ordered by President Obama.
But Holder said it will be difficult for the administration tol meet the deadline it set of January 22 of next year to close the facility because it has been hard to relocate some of those approved for release.