Sept. 11 trial prosecutor settles into familiar role


POSTED: Wednesday, January 13, 2010

NEW YORK » When a federal prosecutor asked a Virginia jury in 2006 to impose the death penalty on Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th Sept. 11 hijacker, he cited the agonizing calls from victims in the burning World Trade Center towers and quoted the defendant's own words as he rejoiced in their pain. “;I wish there would be more pain,”; Moussaoui had said.

“;Let me be blunt, ladies and gentlemen,”; the prosecutor told the jury as he appealed for execution. “;There is no place on this good Earth for Zacarias Moussaoui.”;

Moussaoui ultimately received a life sentence when the jury could not unanimously agree on executing him.

Now, nearly four years later, that prosecutor, David Raskin, looks as if he will get another shot at prosecuting a Sept. 11 case, and this time, he could end up asking that five men be put to death. Raskin, an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan, is widely expected to be the lead prosecutor in the trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other terrorism suspects when they arrive from Guant anamo Bay, Cuba, former colleagues say.

Raskin, 45, is one of the last remaining members of a cadre of seasoned terrorism prosecutors in the Manhattan office, a group that for the past decade and a half has handled many of the most high-profile cases of international terrorism.

In 2007, appearing on a panel at the Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law, Raskin suggested that cases against men held at Guantanamo could well be tricky in ways previous terror cases were not.

“;Some of these people are going to be difficult to prosecute if the opportunity is ever there”; in the civilian system, he said.

He elaborated more recently in a talk at New York Law School: “;Is the government allowed to sort of try Plan A and keep people, you know, detained on an island for years, and then when it doesn't work out, can we just decide to go a different route?”;

There has been neither a formal announcement about the 9/11 prosecution team nor any indication of when the defendants might come to New York. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in November that the case would be jointly assigned to the federal prosecutor's offices in Manhattan and Alexandria, Va., which earlier pooled their resources in the Moussaoui case.

The Virginia prosecutor who will be a partner on the case is John Davis, a Harvard Law graduate who helped win the 2002 conviction of John Walker Lindh for aiding the Taliban.

Neither man nor their offices would comment on their roles, but in recent months, each has quietly left a key post — Raskin as chief of the terrorism unit in Manhattan and Davis, for now as chief of his office's criminal division — to focus full time on the 9/11 matter.

It will take their full attention. The trials come amid a storm of criticism and protest over the decision to bring the cases into federal court.

But those who know Raskin and Davis say the men's experience and temperament make them a good fit for the case.

“;They've each got a very strong compass and a very even keel,”; said David N. Kelley, a former U.S. attorney in Manhattan who led the government's 9/11 investigation, in which Raskin also participated extensively. Kelley worked with Davis on the Lindh case.

Davis, 51, a soft-spoken philosophy major from Davidson College, also served as an associate deputy attorney general from 2004 to 2006. His assignments included overseeing the creation of the special Iraq war crimes tribunal that tried Saddam Hussein and other regime leaders.

Raskin, meanwhile, who joined the U.S. attorney's office in 1999, seems a logical choice for the 9/11 cases. With other senior prosecutors in the office having gone on to become judges and U.S. attorneys and to hold top Justice Department posts, Raskin has emerged as perhaps the prosecutor with the greatest continuity of experience on issues related to 9/11, starting from literally the hours after the attacks.

In the past year, he has been overseeing the prosecution of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first detainee moved into the civilian system; and he also helped in the Justice Department's evaluation of which detainee cases could be tried in civilian courts, whether in New York or elsewhere.

Christopher J. Morvillo, a former terrorism prosecutor in Manhattan, said he believed Raskin's experience and role were important factors in why the 9/11 cases were brought into civilian court — and to New York.

“;He has the relationships in Justice and at the various intelligence agencies,”; Morvillo said, “;to be able to bring all the right people to the table to get this done in a way that is going to be efficient and professional and without mistakes.”;

That experience came at some cost: In late 2007, prosecutors in the Moussaoui case, including Raskin, wrote to the judge to say they had just learned that the CIA possessed videotapes of interrogations of a Qaida operative; the prosecutors had earlier indicated to the judge that no such tapes existed, based on sworn representations from the intelligence field.

Raskin and the other prosecutors were livid over the episode, friends said.

One of Moussaoui's lawyers, Edward B. MacMahon Jr., said of Raskin: “;In the four or five years I had to deal with him, he never once told me something that wasn't true. And that's all you can ask for from a prosecutor.”;

“;David definitely wants to win his case,”; he added, “;but in my experience, he didn't cut a single corner trying to do it.”;

When questions arose recently in the Ghailani case about whether intelligence officials were responding fully to requests for documents for the defense, Raskin told the judge: “;We have been doing this for years. We push very, very hard. The agency involved knows that it is not in their interest to hide anything from us.”;

Born in Riverdale in the Bronx, Raskin attended Fieldston and then studied journalism at Ithaca College. (As a freshman, he played on the Bombers' baseball team.)

After college, Raskin played a couple of months of semipro baseball in Florida, but journalism was in his blood, and he tried his hand at sports writing at The New York Times. His grandfather, A.H. Raskin, was a respected labor reporter and editorial writer for The Times for more than 40 years.

The young Raskin spent more than two years as a news assistant at The Times, where he wrote more than 30 articles, mostly on sports, with an occasional foray into other topics (”;Bottle Crusher Is a Hit with Tavern Owners”;).

“;He would have been a terrific reporter,”; said Murray Chass, the now-retired baseball writer and columnist for The Times who befriended Raskin.

Raskin went on to write articles for several sports magazines before deciding to attend New York Law School. He went into law in part because he was encouraged by a comment by David Stern, the NBA. commissioner, during an interview with him, a friend said.

In the years since 9/11, Raskin has clearly wrestled with the issue of where law enforcement fits in the larger world of counterterrorism measures. Criminal charges, he told the students at New York Law School last year, can be an effective way of combating terrorism.

“;But the question of are we safer is so much bigger than me or any individual in our government,”; he said. “;It's bigger than any policies we have. That's a question that I think the Islamic community may have to answer themselves — how long they're going to tolerate elements of their community, you know, killing innocent people.”;

Every group has had radical elements through history, he added, but those fringe elements over time became less significant.

“;I think that's a bigger sort of philosophical question,”; he said.