In New York, rounding up “the usual suspects” in terrorism cases nowadays may well refer to the defense lawyers.
As Islamic terrorists from around the world are brought to Federal District Court in Manhattan or Brooklyn to face prosecution, an extraordinary outgrowth has been a deepening pool of lawyers qualified to represent them. It is a peculiar niche of defense work, requiring skills not always taught in law school.
These lawyers often must obtain government security clearances, and become adept at navigating the laws involving classified information and foreign intelligence searches. They often travel overseas to interview witnesses and a client’s family members. “Not only do you have the substantive law and the procedural law, but you have the whole cultural orientation,” said Anthony L. Ricco, who has represented a series of terrorism defendants over the past two decades.
These lawyers do not need to advertise in subways and buses; they are typically appointed by judges from a group of seasoned lawyers who have agreed to take on criminal assignments and in some cases have ended up handling a variety of terrorism matters over the years. It was no surprise then that last month, three new terrorism defendants who appeared in the city’s federal courts within 11 days all received lawyers who had extensive experience in handling such cases.
“By any metric you use,” said Ronald L. Kuby, the lawyer for a Queens imam who became ensnared in the investigation of a subway bomb plot, “New York is home of the terror bar.”
In Brooklyn, for example, to be prepared as new cases arrive, the federal court recently finalized a “Terrorism Panel” of three dozen lawyers specially recruited to handle such assignments.
Not every lawyer wants to handle terrorism defense — some declined to join the Brooklyn terrorism panel, for example. But others said they were drawn to such matters because they were so different from the run-of-the-mill gun possession cases.
“Any criminal defense lawyer who enjoys the profession, who enjoys the calling, will gravitate toward these kinds of cases simply because they are the most challenging,” said David A. Ruhnke, an expert on the death penalty who has represented several terrorism defendants.
The terrorism panel of 36 lawyers created by Brooklyn’s federal court is in addition to a separate list of 46 lawyers for capital cases, Magistrate Judge Cheryl L. Pollak, who made recruiting calls herself, said recently.
Because of the complexity of such cases, these lawyers often rely on one another for advice.
Ms. Jestin was motivated to join Mr. Khan’s defense team, she said, by public reports he had been tortured while in C.I.A. custody overseas and by the general lack of judicial process afforded to Guantánamo detainees.
“I think for me it’s having just a deep belief in the legitimacy of our federal system and the rule of law,” she said. “His prior lack of process — I find that so offensive as an American.”