The Benghazi Trial: One Last Shot at Closure or America’s Scapegoat?

By Jesse Van Genugten

Marines from Marine Barracks Washington carry one of the flag-draped transfer cases of the remains of U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans that were killed in an attack this week in Benghazi, Libya, during a dignified transfer of remains ceremony at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Sept. 14. Notable attendees to the event were the president of the United States, Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. senator John McCain and Gen. Joseph Dunford, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.

On the morning of October 2, 2017, silent observers and interested parties sit quietly in wait of one of the most anticipated trials of the year. At promptly 9:00 AM we all rise as Judge Christopher Cooper opens the doors connecting his chambers to the courtroom and takes his seat in front of the large gold emblem of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia. Soon thereafter, flanked by several U.S. marshals, the Defendant Ahmed Abu Khatallah walks to his place at the defense counsel’s table and inserts his headphones for translation.  And just like that, the trial of the only individual the U.S. Government has charged in relation to the attack in Benghazi more than five years ago begins.

As with all criminal cases, the Government’s prosecuting attorneys are granted the floor first and Assistant U.S. Attorney John Crabb, Jr. walks the jury through the harrowing events of September 11-12, 2012. In charging the defendant with no less than eighteen counts, Crabb crafts his narrative of culpability around the notion that the defendant was the ‘master-mind’ behind the attacks. In strong terms, he condemns Khatallah’s alleged anti-American rhetoric in the months preceding the attack and urges the jury to assess the defendant’s views as motivation for providing material support and resources to the perpetrators.  

The largest hurdle the Government must jump over to hear the jury foreman utter the single word ‘guilty’ at the end of the trial arises from the fact that the defendant did not himself set fire to Ambassador Stevens’ residence in Benghazi nor fire the mortars that killed two CIA operatives. According to testimony during the first week of trial, Khatallah was present at the compound during the attack, but the Government’s case must rest on the Defendant’s criminal association, as former head of a militia group present in Benghazi following Qaddafi’s downfall, with the individuals that committed the attack. In essence, the prosecution claims Khatallah set in motion the events that took the lives of four Americans.

The defense counsel’s theory of the case strikes quite a different note, however. Attorney Jeffrey Robinson presents Khatallah as a man who was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. There is undisputed video evidence that the defendant was present at the U.S. diplomatic compound, yet Robinson wants the jury to understand that there exists nothing to suggest Khatallah was in fact the master-mind of the attacks. Like most effective trial lawyers, Robinson crafts a specific narrative throughout his opening statement. His narrative posits that the government demands justice be doled out to those to blame for the tragedy, and the presence of the defendant in U.S. custody, as the only one, provides an opportunity to scapegoat him for that exact purpose.

The trial is expected to last 5-6 weeks. As Mr. Khatallah is the last – and only – defendant associated with the Benghazi attack haled into court in the U.S., the outcome of this trial could determine whether the nation can close this bloody chapter in its diplomatic history and begin healing. In order to do so, however, the jury must determine that the defendant has not simply been targeted by the U.S. outside of the bounds of the judicial system as a means of achieving closure at the cost of Mr. Khatallah’s freedom.
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