When U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan sentenced African Embassy bombing conspirator Ahmed Ghailani to life in prison Tuesday he wasn't just making up for his pre-trial ruling that prevented federal prosecutors from telling jurors that Ghailani had confessed to his crimes. Judge Kaplan was also making good on an implicit promise the federal judiciary made to the executive branch in the immediate wake of the terror attacks on America: You play by our rules in these terror trials and we'll get your back when you need it.
I guess we all have our own definitions of "success" when it comes to criminal cases. In my view, it is a big "success" for the government when federal prosecutors are able to get a life sentence in a case where they were prevented from showing jurors their best and strongest evidence -- here, Ghailani's confession, which was deemed inadmissible because of the way in which it was obtained. To argue otherwise, as so many have over the past few months, is to eschew substance over form. No appeals court judge is going to overturn this result precisely because Judge Kaplan was fair to the defendant.
United States v. Ghailani wasn't pretty -- many big trials aren't -- but from the government's perspective it got the job done. The feds get their conviction and the maximum sentence set forth in the indictment. The courts kept their honor, at least so far, and the rule of law is still sound. And, lo and behold, New York City did not tumble into the sea because it hosted yet another terror trial. What can the "What's So Bad About Guantanamo Bay?" crowd possibly say today, now that yet another federal defendant (this one, the first from Gitmo) is off to the Supermax prison facility in Colorado for a likely life of solitary confinement and Special Administrative Measures?