WASHINGTON -- Wearing a dark green jumpsuit with "PRISONER" written on the back, the defendant was escorted into the courtroom unshackled. He sat next to his lawyer, nodded after the federal judge said, "Good morning," and then paid close attention as the prosecutor proposed a timeline for the case against him.
Were it not for the large audience in the packed courtroom, the bomb-sniffing dog just outside the door and the deputy U.S. marshals patrolling the perimeter of the courthouse wielding AR-15s, the Benghazi suspect's appearance on Tuesday would have seemed as routine as that of dozens of other status conferences that take place at the U.S. District Court in Washington each week.
In the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, the federal judicial system is pushing ahead with the case against Ahmed Abu Khattala, the alleged ringleader of the 2012 attacks on American facilities in Libya that killed four individuals, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Tuesday's hearing marked Khattala's third appearance in court in as many weeks, but his first before U.S. District Judge Christopher "Casey" Cooper. Just confirmed by the Senate in March, Cooper is the judge who will actually preside over Khattala's trial.
"From here on out, you are stuck with me," Cooper told Khattala, explaining that the two judges who had overseen the arraignment and detention hearings were lower-level magistrates and that he would be handling the case going forward.
Cooper also discussed the fact that his wife, Amy Jeffress, is a former national security adviser to Attorney General Eric Holder and that while working in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia before 2009, she had supervised the prosecutor who is handling Khattala's case. Cooper said that because the events in the case happened long after his wife left the U.S. Attorney's Office, he does not "view it [the prior supervision] as presenting a conflict." But the judge said he wanted to make sure Khattala was aware of the issue because the defendant probably didn't get a chance to read about it in The Washington Post. (Jeffress is now a partner at a private law firm.)
For Holder and the Justice Department, the Khattala case offers another chance to prove that federal courts are completely capable of handling complex terrorism cases. Holder said last year that suspects charged in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks would already be on death row if they had gone to trial in federal court. Instead, facing judgment before a military commission in Guantanamo, they probably won't go to trial until at least 2016.
Had some Republican members of Congress had their way, Khattala would be at the Guantanamo prison camp as well, his military trial likely years down the line. But in the federal system, he's due back in court on Sept. 9, just days before the two-year anniversary of the 2012 attacks.
The government doesn't want to rush things. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael DiLorenzo, the D.C.-based federal prosecutor handling the case, told Cooper that it would be a complex trial, involving "many novel questions of facts and law." Multiple witnesses are located outside the United States, much of the documentary evidence is classified, and some of it isn't in English.
DiLorenzo also said that the government would be seeking superseding charges against Khattala, but he wasn't sure if that would happen before the next status conference.
After the hearing, the motorcade of black SUVs and police escorts that had brought Khattala to the courtroom prepared to take him back to the detention center in Alexandria, Virginia, where he is being held.
Nearby, employees of the Labor Department streamed out of their building for lunch, a father explained to a young girl what the bad man (allegedly) did, and passersby asked what was happening, most seeming to be only vaguely aware there was a terrorism suspect so close. Pedestrians were briefly confined to sidewalks by a polite team of heavily armed deputy U.S. marshals until the vehicle carrying Khattala left the parking garage under the courthouse. And the motorcade pulled away, just another line of black SUVs on the streets of the nation's capital.
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