Getting justice after a terror attack requires fair and unbiased courts

Getting justice after a terror attack requires fair and unbiased courts
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In the wake of last week’s New York City terror attack and in anticipation of the coming prosecution of the accused perpetrator, it is worth reminding ourselves of a basic fact about our legal system. This system is admired the world over for its capacity to deliver fair and unbiased resolution of complex matters, and for guaranteeing the balance of power in our government that is the hallmark of our democracy. 

This well-earned admiration is due not only to the system’s foundation of principles and laws, but can also be traced to the work of its judicial officers, federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents. Their dedication to the fair administration of the law is a crucial reason why we still live in a democratic society governed by principles of justice, equality and the rule of law. 

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We have to remind ourselves of this basic fact because recently there has been a rising chorus of voices that have sung a different tune, particularly when it comes to the handling of terrorism matters. 

 

This rhetoric bears no resemblance to the reality of our judicial system. In fact, our federal justice system is uniquely designed to handle terrorism cases effectively, fairly and expeditiously. 

 

This is true despite the fact that terrorism prosecutions present enormous challenges for all involved: the investigative agents, prosecutors, defense counsel and the judiciary. 

These cases typically involve horrific acts of human conduct, numerous victims and family members who are suffering greatly. Evidence frequently has to be gathered from foreign countries. Classified material is often used and must be handled with extra care and in accordance with strict legal procedures. More often than not, there are complex, and frequently groundbreaking, technological issues that must be tackled. Finally, these cases are conducted under the glare of heightened media and public attention. 

Despite all of these challenges, our federal justice system has consistently risen to the occasion. Terrorism prosecutions have protected the American public from those who are motivated to commit violence against innocent people while upholding the very constitutional principles the terrorists sought to undermine. 

I witnessed this first hand in two recent terrorism prosecutions I was directly involved with: the San Bernardino attack and the case involving two Anaheim men who sought to join ISIS .

In the first instance, two terrorists opened fire at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino on December 2, 2015. They killed 14 people and seriously injured 22. Thanks to a swift and well-coordinated mobilization of the justice system, including multiple investigative agencies and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a previously unidentified co-conspirator of one of the shooters, Enrique Marquez Jr., was identified and charged within two weeks of the attack with providing material support to terrorism. Within a few more months, three additional people related to the shooter were charged with making false statements to federal authorities and immigration charges. All four plead guilty. 

The Anaheim case was one of the country’s first examples of individuals convicted and sentenced for attempting to join ISIS. Again the case involved close and efficient cooperation between multiple components of the justice system. And again the result was the same: the fair administration of justice to remove a threat to public safety. The two men involved were tried, convicted and sentenced to 30-year sentences all with 13 months of their arrest. 

These two cases join dozens of other terrorism cases that are now part of American jurisprudence. Consider these other recent examples:  

In 2006, Zacharias Moussaoui was convicted of conspiracy to engage in the 9/11 attacks, and will spend the rest of his life in prison.  

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his role in the attempted 2009 Christmas Day airplane bombing. 

Faisal Shahzad was sentenced to life in prison for his attempt to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in May 2010. He pleaded guilty to all charges just six weeks after his attempted act of terror. He too will spend his life in prison.

In 2015, a jury found the surviving Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty of all 30 counts against him and sentenced him to death. Capital cases are especially complex, but federal prosecutors successfully presented the case, obtained the conviction and sentenced the defendant all in just over two years after the attack. 

These cases were no joke. They were high-profile and high-stakes. Prosecuted during both Democratic and Republican administrations, they were presented without any hint of political bias or influence. As a result, the American public could have faith that the proceedings were fair. 

The public can and should continue to have faith in this system. Every single day across our country, the federal courts administer justice effectively and impartially. 

When individuals or corporations flout the law, when communities are ravaged by violence and crime, when leaders fail to live up to their responsibilities, public servants in our justice system are frequently the last and best recourse. They alone are often in the position to see that justice is done, that victims are returned a measure of the dignity that has been denied them, that individual rights have been protected and that our constitutional principles are upheld throughout the process.  

Our justice system is a source of national pride. It and the people who work in it make our country better, safer and a model for the world. This is the message that our country needs to hear following a terrorist attack. It is a message with the power to bring us together, and, just as importantly, it has the virtue of being true. 

Eileen M. Decker is the former United States attorney for the Central District of California, and the former deputy mayor for Homeland Security & Public Safety for the City of Los Angeles (for both Mayor’s Antonio Villaraigosa and Eric Garcetti). As deputy mayor she was responsible for the city’s response to and preparation for emergencies, including developing the City's earthquake plan. As United States attorney, she led the federal response to the San Bernardino terrorist attack.