Tenn. lawyer represents accused Sept. 11 terrorist - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Tenn. lawyer represents accused Sept. 11 terrorist

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - The decision to defend Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, came easy for Chattanooga defense attorney Mike Acuff.

Acuff said he chose to work on Mohammed's legal team because he supports the constitutional rights of those accused of crimes to defend themselves within the U.S. justice system.

"I think people misperceive that being a criminal defense attorney means approving of wrongdoing," Lt. Col. Acuff told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in a story published Sunday. "It just means you're there to make sure they have a fair shot at things."

Mohammed has claimed responsibility for killing nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, the 2002 beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and other acts of terror.

He was arrested in Pakistan in 2003 and now is a Guantanamo Bay detainee.

His 2003 mug shot, showing him wearing a thin white T-shirt and dazed expression, cemented the image of the Kuwaiti, until then a shadowy figure, as a prized captive in the U.S. war on terror.

He once was third in command of al-Qaida, the terror organization led by Osama bin Laden.

Acuff, a Christian and 52-year-old father of three who lost a 2006 election for Hamilton County General Sessions judge, is a trusted confidant of Mohammed, although the soft-spoken military man living in Hixson will say only that he thinks his client likes him.

Acuff survived the ax last summer when Mohammed fired his defense team, comprising two military and two civilian lawyers, and declared he would represent himself. Because he is required by law to have an attorney at his side, Mohammed hand-picked the tall lieutenant colonel with blond hair to be his "elbow" counsel.

In December, when the defendant indicated to the court that he wanted to plead guilty and be executed immediately, Acuff was the only one sitting next to him.

"He's pious and very polite. He's one of the most polite clients I've ever dealt with, and I've dealt with a lot," Acuff said. "Mr. Mohammed wished me a Merry Christmas."

According to Acuff, Mohammed has discarded the scruffy look and more resembles a "mystic" with a thick salt-and-pepper beard and long white robe. The image is not unlike Osama bin Laden himself, Acuff noted, with whom the government claims Mr. Mohammed worked directly to orchestrate the World Trade Center attacks.

Mohammed speaks good English with a heavy accent, is a "very educated gentleman" and has probably lost "about 40 pounds" because of his regular fasting, Acuff said.

Aside from his brief description of Mohammed, Acuff said he is limited in what he can share regarding their interaction.

He declined to give details on the course the case might take in 2009, although it likely will include a military's judge's ruling on whether the government can put Mohammed to death in the face of his wish to plead guilty. Such a plea is illegal under military law, and, according to opponents, would pander to the terrorism suspect's wish to become a martyr.

As a "high-value detainee," Mr. Mohammed's every utterance is "top secret," according to the laws of the military commissions. Those laws cut to the heart of the controversy at Guantanamo Bay, where military prosecutors are allowed to operate outside the parameters of U.S. federal law and defense attorneys claim the system is "very, very restricting," Acuff said.

He said he believes, along with other legal scholars, that Mohammed's case will land in the U.S. Supreme Court and become a vehicle either for challenging or defending the legitimacy of the United States approach to the global war on terror.

"This will certainly be the biggest historical thing I've done in my life," Acuff said.

When Acuff went on active duty as an Army reservist in 2007 after attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel, the defense office of the military commissions was scrambling for military lawyers in the judge advocate general's corps willing to defend Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Acuff has been there 16 times and enjoys eating in one of the open-air mess halls that overlooks the ocean. The only problem, he said, is that a barbed-wire fence obstructs the view.

Acuff, who is in Guantanamo Bay now and expects to be there until after the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration, said he understands that "people are uncomfortable with what I'm doing" but that he is guided by principle.

"It is more Christian to defend these people than to condemn them," he said.    

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Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, http://www.timesfreepress.com             

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)      

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