Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Defending a Terrorist and the Rule of Law

Sunday's edition of my local paper, the Chattanooga Times-Free Press, had a front page story profiling Lieutenant Colonel Mike Acuff, a Chattanooga lawyer who is defending Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Guantanamo detainee accused of masterminding the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Aside from the "local-man-is-witness-to-history" angle, the article didn't offer much insight into Acuff's client and the case except to say "that Mr. Mohammed’s case will land in the U.S. Supreme Court and become a vehicle either for challenging or defending the legitimacy of the United States’ approach to the global war on terror." Something most people could figure out on their own. But then, you can't expect too much information. After all, there's attorney-client privilege and the client is a "high-value detainee" whose every utterance is top secret.

But a couple of things stand out. There's the path that led Acuff to Guantanamo -- high school in Indiana, a stint in the army as a medic, college at ETSU, law school at the University of Tennessee, the move to Chattanooga, work in the Hamilton County public defender's office, a return to active duty as a reservist, and a meeting with defense-office supervisors in Washington where he was sent to Guantanamo. It's the old story of life never turning out quite like you planned it. Acuff wanted to be a doctor, but was tripped up by the same thing that tripped up quite a few pre-med students: organic chemistry.

The other thing that really stands out is Acuff's respect for the rule of law -- much more so than your typical Bush administration flunkie. You know, where every prisoner gets his day in court to hear the evidence against him and has the right to an attorney. All that legal mumbo-jumbo. It comes out in snippets in the article, random quotes here and there from Acuff...
"I think people misperceive that being a criminal defense attorney means approving of wrongdoing...It just means you’re there to make sure they have a fair shot at things."

"I was interested in the defense of those cases because it appeared there really wasn’t a whole lot (of evidence), and people weren’t being given much rights."

"This country has gone wrong where we have put people in jail, changed the rules and haven’t given them a quick and fair opportunity to hear their cases."

"It is more Christian to defend these people than to condemn them."
There is also a video embedded within the online version of the article in which Lt. Col. Acuff offers...(a quick and dirty transcription)
"Sometimes the individual cases with the individual accused gets overwhelmed by the fight against the laws that we've passed and the things that we've adopted as a...interrogation procedures, you know, that we've accepted as a national morality. I mean, those issues to me are more important than the individual cases overall, in the end, in a historical context.

"People will remember Mr. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but what will really affect our country is how we, in the end, decide to deal with these procedures that we've passed, these attitudes that we've adopted. That will be what will carry forward."

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