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Some 9/11 families "outraged" over potential plea deals for five defendants held at Guantanamo Bay

Plea negotiations underway for 9/11 defendants
Death penalty could be off the table for those charged in Sept. 11 attacks 04:56

CBS News has confirmed military prosecutors and defense attorneys are negotiating potential plea deals that could take the death penalty off the table for five defendants charged in connection with the 9/11 attack – and some families of victims are upset by the news, reports CBS News senior investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge.

The five defendants (including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described architect of 9/11) are all held at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and were formally charged in 2008 with helping to plan the attack. But their cases have stalled over access to CIA evidence and, recently, over COVID delays.  

Five 9/11 defendants currently held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  CBS News

Sunday marked 21 years since the terror plot that killed nearly 3,000 people on U.S. soil.

Among the victims was pilot Charles Burlingame. On 9/11, al Qaeda terrorists took over Burlingame's American Airlines Flight 77, slamming it into the Pentagon.

"He was living his dream," Burlingame's sister, Debra, told Herridge.

Burlingame was more than a war hero to his family, who affectionately called him Chic. "He was really our touchstone," said Debra. "He still is."

Before this year's anniversary, Debra shared his story at New York's 9/11 Memorial. "We didn't have remains for weeks. We were constantly saying to each other, 'What would Chic want? What would Chic do?'"

But her grief has turned to anger, after learning a potential plea deal is under discussion.

"I was outraged," she said.

Herridge asked, "You're in touch with other 9/11 families. Do they feel the same way?"

"The families are outraged. They don't want closure; they want justice."

But another group, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, believes a plea deal could deliver "some measure of judicial finality."

Lawyer James Connell, whose team represents 9/11 defendant Ammar al-Baluchi, said, "All five defendants and the government are all engaged in good faith negotiations with the idea of bringing this trial, which has become a forever trial, to an end.

"[Al-Baluchi] is willing to plead guilty to a substantial sentence at Guantanamo in exchange for a guarantee of medical care and dropping the death penalty," Connell said.

Before their transfer to Guantanamo Bay in 2006, the five 9/11 defendants were held by the CIA and interrogated. Critics call the extreme tactics torture.

Alka Pradhan, a human rights attorney on the 9/11 defense team, described one interrogation tactic, referred to as "walling," which she said has had the most lasting physical impact: "He had told us that his head was bashed against a wall repeatedly until he saw sparks and fainted."

"Nearly 3,000 people died on 9/11," said Herridge. "Is it right to take the death penalty off the table?"

"The United States government failed all of us after September 11th in their decisions to use illegal techniques and illegal programs," Pradhan replied. "In doing so, [they] irrevocably corrupted any legal process that could have taken place."

A spokesman for the military trials did not answer CBS News' questions, but confirmed "the parties are currently engaged in preliminary plea negotiations," citing recent court records.

If a plea deal goes ahead, and the 9/11 defendants get lengthy sentences, there's a law in place that prevents their transfer to U.S. soil and federal custody. That means the Guantanamo prison could remain open indefinitely.

Debra Burlingame, whose brother was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, said, "I will not have closure as long as there is any possibility for some future president to commute their sentences or trade them away.

"I do believe that forgiveness is more powerful than love," she said. "But it's earned. They never will have that."

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 11: The American flag is unfurled on
The American flag is unfurled on the side of the Pentagon to commemorate the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, September 11, 2022 in Arlington, Virginia.  Oliver Contreras/for The Washington Post via Getty Images

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