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Sept. 11 judge quits terror trial, names successor as he announces retirement

The sun sets on Guantanamo's Detention Center on February 10, 2017. The military approved release of this photo. (Emily Michot/Miami Herald/TNS)
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The long-serving military judge in the Sept. 11 terror case on Monday announced he will retire at the end of the month and named a Marine colonel to replace him.

In his notice filed at the Office of Military Commissions, Army Col. James L. Pohl announced that he has chosen to “leave active duty after 38 years. To be clear, this was my decision and not impacted by any outside influence from any source.”

Six years after the suspects were arraigned, the case still has no trial date. The new judge will need to read six years of motions and pre-trial transcripts to get up to speed, possibly slowing down the case even more.

In the same notice he assigned Marine Col. Keith A. Parrella, 44, a military judge currently based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to replace him as the judge in the capital case against alleged 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of conspiring with the hijackers who killed 2,976 people on Sept. 11, 2001.

It will be up to Parrella to decide whether to overturn one of Pohl’s most significant rulings in the case: His Aug. 17 order to exclude 2006 and 2007 interrogations by the FBI of the alleged conspirators, most conducted soon after their transfer from secret CIA prisons to the U.S. military base in Cuba.

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In a filing just last week, prosecutors said Pohl had excluded some of the strongest evidence in the conspiracy case — FBI agents’ descriptions of the men ostensibly confessing to their roles in the 9/11 conspiracy. Pohl ruled that prosecution and spy agency prohibitions on defense teams questioning former CIA black site workers put the defense attorneys at an unfair disadvantage.

Aside from the henna-bearded Mohammed, who sits at Table One in the five-defendant courtroom, Pohl has been a looming, consistent presence in the war court case that has gone through fits and spurts — and has approved all the substitutes and redactions of secret evidence in the case and read, if not ruled on, hundreds of pretrial motions.

A key question confronting the case is whether Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ decision Feb. 5 to fire the overseer of military commissions, Convening Authority Harvey Rishikof, at a time when Rishikof was exploring plea deals, constituted unlawful influence. A plea deal would have removed the death penalty from the trial.

Pohl had scheduled the next 9/11 pretrial hearing for Sept. 10-14. With the reassignment, it will be up to Parrella to decide whether to keep that date.

Pohl, 67, has presided at the 9/11 trial since the May 2012 arraignment. He has served as the chief judge for military commissions, the authority for assigning other judges to cases. With his resignation, Mattis or someone he designates will have to pick Pohl’s successor as the chief judge for military commissions.

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© 2018 Miami Herald

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