The Justice Department says its case against a man accused in the 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, is unusually complex and involves "novel questions of fact and law."
In a Washington, D.C., federal courtroom Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael DiLorenzo said the government had already begun sharing sensitive documents with defense attorneys. But many of the hundreds of people interviewed by the FBI remain overseas, and many documents are either top secret or in Arabic, or both. DiLorenzo made those arguments in an effort to stop the clock, at least temporarily, on defendant Ahmed Abu Khattala's request for a speedy trial.
Assistant Federal Public Defender Michelle Peterson said she did not object to a delay of 45 days, which would allow for more information sharing in the weeks ahead. She said the material handed over so far amounted to "just a couple of hours" of work for the defense.
So far, a grand jury has indicted Khattala on only one charge: conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, resulting in the death of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other men. The Justice Department has said it will add more charges, including ones that could carry a possible death sentence. But in court Tuesday, DiLorenzo indicated those new charges may not come until the fall. "There's a number of variables," he said.
Khattala, 43, walked easily into the courtroom flanked by U.S. Marshals. He was unshackled and wore a green prison jumpsuit. And once again, he paid close attention to the proceedings, listening to an interpreter through a headset. Khattala is tall with a sturdy build, a flowing grey beard and a full head of salt-and-pepper hair. Before the proceedings began, a yellow-colored Labrador retriever named Max and his Marshals Service handler patrolled the hallway and the court area, apparently sniffing for possible explosives.
Judge Christopher Cooper noted Khattala had been in court three times since he was captured in Libya by U.S. Special Forces and the FBI and transported to the U.S. on a Navy vessel. The judge, who won Senate confirmation just weeks ago, greeted the defendant by name and was met with a nod and a direct look from Khattalah.
Judge Cooper said although his wife, Amy Jeffress, had supervised the national security unit in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, which is prosecuting Khattala, she left that post in January 2009, so the judge didn't see any conflict in his overseeing the case. But, he said, he put the issue on the record out of "an abundance of caution."
Khattala will return to court for another status conference on Sept. 9, just two days before the anniversary of the fiery attacks in Benghazi.