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Former Gitmo prosecutor blasts tribunals

Associated Press
by Mike Melia
September 26, 2008

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) — A former prosecutor testified Friday that breakdowns in the delivery of evidence to Guantanamo detainees could lead to wrongful convictions, saying his experience changed him from a "true believer" to feeling "truly deceived."

Testifying in the war crimes case he led before quitting this month, Army Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld said the government has not provided exculpatory evidence to lawyers for Mohammed Jawad, who is accused in a grenade attack that injured two American soldiers.

He said the embattled military tribunal system may not be capable of delivering justice for Jawad or the victims.

"They are not served by having someone who may be innocent be convicted of the crime," said Vandeveld, who testified by video link from Washington.

Vandeveld, the second former prosecutor to testify on behalf of a detainee this year, said the problem affects cases throughout the Pentagon's system for prosecuting alleged terrorists at this U.S. Navy base.

"This is a system that has existed for six years, and I think it is impossible for anyone in good conscience to stand up and say he or she is provided all the discovery in a case," said Vandeveld, who has blamed bureaucracy as well as ethical lapses.

The chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo tribunals, Army Col. Lawrence Morris, said there is no basis to Vandeveld's ethical qualms and his office complies "beyond what the rules require" in seeking out and turning over evidence.

"The idea of holding out the specter of a wrongful conviction is outrageous," he told The Associated Press, adding that defense complaints of unshared evidence typically involve mitigating material that would not have any bearing on a defendant's guilt.

He said the time involved in seeking out evidence from the military, the FBI, the CIA, and other agencies is a primary reason cases have not gone to trial faster at Guantanamo. The first trial was completed last month in the tribunals that have faced repeated legal setbacks, including a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that found an earlier system unconstitutional.

"It is because of the nature of this war and that there are so many elements fighting in it, information doesn't come in a tidy package," he said.

Jawad, an Afghan, faces a war crimes trial in January for allegedly throwing a grenade into a jeep carrying two soldiers and their interpreter in Kabul in December 2002.

As the lead prosecutor in that case, Vandeveld said he knew of exculpatory material including reports by Defense Department investigators that have not been turned over to defense lawyers. Some of the material concerns another suspect who allegedly confessed to the same crime.

The judge, Army Col. Steve Henley, ordered prosecutors to hand over those three documents by next Friday.

Jawad's attorney, Air Force Maj. David Frakt, is asking the judge to dismiss the case outright because of "gross government misconduct" including the issues raised by Vandeveld and alleged abuse in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.

"The world now knows that this is complete farce," he said.

Dressed in Army camouflage fatigues, Vandeveld told the court that he reached a turning point when by happenstance he discovered key evidence among material scattered throughout the prosecutors' office.

Flipping through another case file, he saw for the first time a statement Jawad made to a military investigator probing prisoner abuse in Afghanistan — an episode that helped convert him from a "true believer to someone who felt truly deceived."

Vandeveld said he become gradually disillusioned and even developed sympathy for the defendant, who was captured as a teenager and allegedly subjected to beatings and sleep-deprivation.

"My views changed," said the once hard-charging prosecutor. "I am a father, and it's not an exercise in self-pity to ask oneself how you would feel if your own son was treated in this fashion."

Vandeveld is at least the fourth prosecutor to quit in disillusionment with the tribunals. The former chief prosecutor, Air Force Col. Morris Davis, quit in October and later testified about alleged political interference.

On Thursday, Vandeveld refused to testify unless granted immunity. But he later changed his mind and indicated he was available, said Air Force Capt. Paula Bissonette, a tribunals spokeswoman.

Jawad faces a maximum life sentence if convicted of charges including attempted murder.

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