The Underwear Bomber Goes to Trial

His courtroom antics prove we shouldn't be afraid of public trials for al-Qaeda defendants: the more people see of this suspect, the less scary he becomes

aa getty.jpg

Umar Farouk Abdulmutuab / Getty

In Detroit on Tuesday jury selection begins in federal district court in the case styled United States v. Abdulmutallab. You probably know the criminal defendant better by his international nickname, the "Underwear Bomber," a mocking yet evocative sobriquet that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab picked up nearly two years ago when he was apprehended aboard a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines plane trying to set off an explosive device he had concealed in his pants

As a matter of law and fact the Abdulmutallab case is about as one-sided as a criminal case can be. Alleged co-conspirator Anwar al-Awlaki may be dead and gone, but there are all the people on the plane who witnessed what the defendant did on December 25, 2009. Also, prosecutors will show jurors, on videotape, a controlled demonstration of the explosive device-- ka-BOOM!-- the defendant was said to be trying to detonate from his seat. And Abdulmutallab reportedly upon arrest was only too happy to announce his devotion to al-Qaeda, which our dutiful law enforcement officials were only too happy to transcribe.

The defense? In US v. Abdulmutallab, the defendant is representing himself, like Zacarias Moussaoui did during his sentencing trial in Virginia and like Khalid Sheik Mohammed did when he went (briefly) on trial at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It's an al-Qaeda thing, evidently, to preclude your infidel lawyer from standing up for you in court. (It is evidently not an al-Qaeda thing to preclude your "stand-by" lawyer to file smart briefs in court. Abdulmutallab may make an opening statement next week in his own behalf. But his infidel lawyers-- on court-appointed stand-by to ensure the legitimacy of the trial-- have honorably protected his interests in pretrial motions).  

They say that any defendant who hires himself as attorney has a fool for a client. Perhaps that explains why Abdulmutallab has acted so often like such a jackass during pre-trial proceedings. He's reportedly sat in court with his feet on the defense table, shouting "Osama lives" on more than one occasion. And he's refused to stand up in court for the entrance each session of U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds, a well-respected appointee of the first President Bush, who surely will earn her modest salary this month shepherding the 24-year-old Nigerian defendant through to verdict.

Judge Edmunds has a tough path to navigate. She has to allow Abdulmutallab to speak out on his own behalf without allowing him to do what he's desperate to do; turn the trial into a zoo. Moussaoui tried to do the same thing during his 2006 sentencing trial but U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema schooled him with a blend of judicial power and motherly firmness. I bet you a steak dinner that Judge Edmunds already has been in touch with Judge Brinkema about how to handle an unwieldy al-Qaeda defendant during a jury trial. The two judges are part of an exclusive club, after all.

And I bet you that Judge Edmunds will be able to control Abdulmutallab for the course of the trial. He's got the same balancing act that she does, when you think about it. If he goes too far in disrespecting the court or the country, he runs the risk of being kicked out of his own trial. It's an extraordinary remedy but trial judges have been known to relegate criminal defendants to a cell where they can view the proceedings via closed circuit. If that happens to Abdulmutallab, he'll lose his audience and his voice. And, let's face it, that's all he has right now.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

Just In