Canadian Teen Accused of Murdering U.S. Soldier Appears in Court
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, Jan. 12, 2006 Preliminary hearings in the case of a Canadian teen accused of murdering a U.S. Army medic in a 2002 Afghan firefight began here yesterday.
Omar Ahmed Khadr, 19, was 15 when prosecutors say he threw the grenade that killed U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer. The attack also cost former Army Sgt. Lane Morris an eye.
Khadr appeared in court dressed like a typical teen, wearing an athletic jersey-styled red and blue T-shirt sporting the logo of a Canadian company. The only photo of Khadr that has been made public, taken when he was 15, shows a lanky adolescent. The young man who appeared in court yesterday was bearded and broad-shouldered.
Before the hearing adjourned for the day, presiding officer Marine Col. Robert S. Chester objected to Khadr's attire and instructed attorneys to ensure he did not return to court the following day in a T-shirt. Published rules for courtroom observers expressly forbid such attire.
Khadr fidgeted through the several-hour-long hearing, frequently leaning over to confer with his civilian attorney, American University law professor Muneer Ahmad.
Most of the hearing dealt with the issue of Khadr's detailed military attorney, Army Capt. John Merriam, who has no trial experience. The defense team has asked that a more experienced military defense attorney, Marine Lt. Col. Colby Vokey, be assigned to the case, but Marine and Navy legal officials have not decided whether or not to reassign Volkey from his current duties. Merriam asked yesterday that proceedings in the case be halted until the issue of representation is resolved.
In the hearing, Merriam said the right for a defendant to choose his own counsel is fundamental. "It would be an extraordinarily hollow right" if Khadr's request is not granted, Merriam said.
Chester said he understood Merriam's concern and allowed him to defer several legal processes scheduled for yesterday's hearing, including entering a plea on behalf of Khadr and taking the opportunity to explore the objectivity of the presiding officer. Presumably, Volkey will take these steps if he is reassigned, or another officer will if Volkey is not ultimately assigned to the case.
Chester scheduled a second hearing for today to hear arguments on a motion presented by Ahmad, Khadr's civilian attorney. Ahmad took issue with several "extra-judicial" statements Air Force Col. Morris Davis, chief prosecutor for the Defense Department's office of military commissions, made in a news conference Jan. 10. The specific comments were not revealed in court yesterday, but Ahmad said several of Davis's comments were "unduly prejudicial" and violated ethics regulations regarding pre-trial publicity.
Chester noted that he has instructed the panel members, military officers serving in the role of jury for military commissions, to avoid media accounts of the cases up for trial at Guantanamo Bay. "I believe that's a fairly effective prophylactic that's already in place to protect Mr. Khadr's rights," Chester said.
He also noted that Ahmad had participated in the same news conference and cautioned both sides to consider the effect of their statements to the media on the eventual outcome of the trial. "I think it would be in everyone's best interest if perhaps the rhetoric were toned down," he said.