|Alumnus Who Defended Alleged 9/11 Terrorist Stresses Importance of Lawful Process
December 07, 2009
by John Syme
U.S. Navy Captain Prescott L. Prince '76 visited the Davidson campus Dec. 3. Prince, deputy chief defense counsel in the Office of Military Commissions-Defense, served as a Rule of Law Officer attached to Task Force 134 (Detainee Operations) in Iraq in 2007-08. He was later named to defend the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 bombings of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
|Prince spoke with cadets in an ROTC class.
From April 2008 to January 2009, Prince said he spent a "specifically and well-engaged" nine months as Mohammed's attorney: three-day trips to Guantanamo Bay for 10-hour interviews, and some 20 to 30 motions filed from his Washington office regarding everything from conditions and treatment of the accused to constitutional issues.
For instance, Prince said his defense team filed a motion that the bill of attainder holding Mohammed and other accused terrorists at Guantanamo was an unconstitutional segregation based on nationality, since no Americans thus far had been "Gitmo-ized."
During his nine months assigned to Mohammed's defense, people often asked Prince how he could defend the avowed mastermind of such heinous acts. He said he focused on the job he was ordered to do.
"It's not the job of the defense counsel to give the government its answers. As defense, I get to be the one sitting in the back of the class asking the questions," Prince said. "Every time (prosecutors) do something, we're there to say, ‘You did that wrong' in open court."
Mohammed ultimately refused military counsel of any kind. The military commission's work halted in January. In November, U.S. Attorney Eric Holder announced that the government would try Mohammed in federal court in New York City.
From the standpoint of the defense, Prince thinks it is impossible for Mohammed to get a legally fair trial in any American venue, for reasons ranging from the torture issue of waterboarding to legal maneuvering around evidentiary rules.
"When you ‘disappear' somebody for five years and subject him to waterboarding and God knows what, you can't un-ring that bell," he said. "Everything about military interrogation is inherently coercive, even when it's done properly. Generally speaking it's done for intelligence purposes, rather than for the case of (the defendant's alleged) particular crime."
[Listen here to a podcast of a panel discussion, "The Torture Debate," with Prince and David L. Perry, director of the college's Vann Center for Ethics, which hosted Prince's campus visit.]
Prince noted that legal rules differ from military commissions to federal courts on hearsay and rights of confrontation to classification of testimony. The military commission is an imperfect tool, he said, developed during World War IIto meet wartime expediencies. And while the federal court system is not perfect, it is the "envy of the world," time-tested through 200 years of trial by fire. So he ultimately, perhaps a bit grudgingly, favors the federal court trial for Mohammed as the only viable option.
"A majority of Americans want this guy put on trial for his life," Prince said. He noted that this majority includes the extremes of those who would mete out Mohammed's sentence themselves and those who might justify his actions. But right, wrong or somewhere in the middle, capital trials belong in federal court, he said. "This is a democracy, and the people should have the final say."
As a Davidson student, Prince majored in psychology, and received his master's in psychology from Radford University in 1980. The son of a Naval officer and a Marine, he signed on with Navy JAG recruiters during law school at Washington & Lee University. "It was either go to law school or get a Ph.D. Then after I joined the Navy, I thought, ‘I get to be a lawyer and a naval officer, how cool is this?'" he said.
As he prepared to go to Iraq after being called back to active duty in 2007, Prince, said he remembered the value of his religion studies at Davidson.
"An understanding of the Bible is necessary for understanding Western civilization," he said. "Religion was taught not as a faith you had to accept, but as a source of values."
With that in mind, he realized that if he was going to go overseas to Iraq, he needed to study Islam. He bought a text. Later, when he noticed that one of the Iraqi officers he worked with read daily from the Qur'an, he bought his own copy so he could do the same. He needed to understand the man and his countrymen on their terms.
"Extremists of all religions notwithstanding, we're all believers of the book," Prince said, noting similarities between the basic texts of the "religions of Abraham": Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Even in the concept of "just war," which varies among the religions, Prince is anxious to look for similarities rather than differences: "There are some equivalencies to the concept of just war, so there are always some areas where we can reach agreement."
He had time to take a closer look at other cultural differences.
"The civic center of gravity in our country is the courthouse. In the Muslim world, it's the mosque," he said. "When things go wrong, we don't pray. We sue somebody. We go to the courthouse. They go to the mosque. We just need to understand these people. We need to be able to tell the good guys from the bad guys."
Twice during his Davidson visit, Prince addressed students directly in light of the educational experience they now share with him.
"I would rather be in a unit commanded by a person with an education from a place like Davidson than a place like West Point," Prince told ROTC cadets during his visit. And he echoed that encouragement to a broad cross-section of all Davidson students who came to the lunchtime panel discussion: "Begin to think of yourselves as moral leaders of your society. You are."
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,800 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.