The New York State of Mind

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For more than 300 years, American communities have fought and scraped to host criminal trials for men and women alleged to have committed crimes in their jurisdictions. It was written into the 6th Amendment. With only rare and logical exceptions, federal court judges have blocked defendants who have tried to avoid the effects of the essential "home court" advantage which occurs each time the members of the community most affected by the crime are then asked to sit in judgment upon the crime.

And yet our most important city, New York City, now is saying more clearly that it does not want to host the most important criminal trial in American history. The toughest place in the nation, which houses the toughest and most resilient people in the land, don't want to judge Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), one of the primary Al Qaeda leaders responsible for the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. When the heat and heartbreak from the day subside, as they must, historians will look back upon this latest twist in the trail of the KSM trial as an extraordinary thing.

I have made clear my position on a KSM trial in Manhattan. After a few early doubts, I have concluded that it's the perfect place for a trial of this magnitude. I think it would be a cathartic event for the city and the nation--seeing as we all would that Mohammed is just a man, and not a monster. But I was not in New York on 9/11. I have no right to a judgment that rests in the hands of the very people who appear to have gotten the Justice Department to back off upon its quest to indict Mohammed in the Southern District of New York. I just hope that some smart psychologist out there writes a book about why New Yorkers, of all people, would refuse to want first crack at a man who did so much damage there. The Times' house editorial today touches upon this very point.

While I am waiting for my advance copy of that book, I wait, too, for Attorney General Eric Holder to do something fast on this topic now that the Justice Department has sounded the retreat on a New York trial. We are approaching the four-year anniversary of the start of the Zacarias Moussaoui trial in Alexandria, Virginia. That's the next logical venue for a Mohammed trial--the courthouse there is as secure as you could ever imagine a building to be. How about the Western District of Pennsylvania, near Somerset County, where Flight 93 crashed into a field that awful day? That's also an appropriate venue for this trial.

Actually, they could hold it in my backyard, for all I care, so long as it is a federal civilian trial and it starts right away. Justice delayed is indeed justice denied. And eight and a half years after the Twin Towers fell, it is time to prosecute Mohammed and dispense to him the justice he deserves. The tribunals are not working; our federal courts are. Just do it, Attorney General, and do it soon.

Photo credit: ryanjreilly/flickr

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

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