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Tight security blankets embassy bombings trial
NEW YORK (CNN) -- In a case about terrorism and attacking U.S. government buildings, it should surprise no one that the federal courthouse hosting the trial is all but a fortress. With defendants accused of mass murder, nothing is left to chance.
United States v. Osama bin Laden et. al.is underway with strong security measures both outside the U.S. District Courthouse in lower Manhattan's Foley Square and inside its courtroom number 318, where the embassy bombings trial began on January 3.
Three of the four defendants -- Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed -- are accused of killing 213 people in Nariobi, Kenya, and 11 victims in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in twin bombings of the U.S. embassies there on August 7, 1998. The fourth defendant, Wadih el Hage, is implicated in the alleged conspiracy behind the bombings and accused of being a personal secretary to Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, who the U.S. claims masterminded and financed the attacks.
Odeh's attorney Anthony Ricco, who has tried cases in the U.S. District Courthouse since 1982, said, "The case certainly has a high level of security unparalleled in my experience of practice in the federal court."
Entering the courtroom requires passing through metal detectors twice - first in the courthouse lobby and again in the hallway outside the courtroom.
El Hage's attorney Joshua Dratel, who has handled cases here for 20 years, said, "We're used to the entry to the courthouse. In the average case, you don't have metal detectors at the door to the courtroom, too, but it's been done before."
The same courtroom was the setting for New York's other high-profile terrorism trials. In 1995, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and nine other Muslim extremists were convicted in a thwarted plot to blow up New York City landmarks such as the United Nations building and the Lincoln Tunnel. The year before, four men were convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six people.
"We've been at a heightened state with perimeter security since the World Trade Center," according to Tim Hogan of the U.S. Marshals Service.
But the level of security at the courthouse reflects a new approach toward protecting government buildings developed after the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City's Alfred Murrah federal building, which killed 168 people.
"There's been a continuous upgrade since the bombing of the Murrah building," Hogan said.
The sidewalk in front of the courthouse is lined with white concrete barriers that would stop any would-be car bomber from reaching the building. These "Jersey barriers," actual highway dividers pioneered by New Jersey road builders, were erected here in late 1998, soon after the first suspects in the embassy bombings were incarcerated in the federal jail next door.
Since that time, the lane running between the courthouse and a newer courthouse across the street has been closed to traffic, except vehicles dropping off judges or making deliveries. A guard booth now stands at the top of the street, where U.S. marshals control a new hydraulic-powered metal barrier. Each time a vehicle pulls up, an FBI trained dog --- lately a Labrador retriever named Tara -- will sniff the truck's body and baggage. The hydraulic barrier is lowered to let the vehicle through and then immediately pops up again.
In next few weeks, dozens of six-foot tall, green metal columns, known as bollards, will be installed around the courthouse perimeter, replacing the Jersey barriers.
"They allow for freer access while increasing security," Hogan said.
Size is one reason courtroom 318 is preferred for these terrorism trials -- it is large enough to accommodate multiple defendants as well as members of the press and public.
Security is another reason. The third floor of the Foley Square courthouse is connected by an enclosed metal bridge to the Metropolitan Correctional Center. It is the shortest and most protected distance for daily defendant travel.
The defendants are strip-searched every morning on their way into court, as they were for the pre-trial hearings. In the courtroom, their shackled ankles are hidden from jurors' eyes by black drapes hanging from the lawyers' tables. Appearances count, and it could be considered prejudicial to let the jurors see the defendants in leg irons. For the same reason, the defendants wear traditional tunics instead of prison uniforms.
Uniformed U.S. marshals are posted outside the courthouse. Inside, plain-clothes marshals are everywhere, looking like lawyers in business suits instead of the armed guards that they are.
Two marshals in the hallway outside the courtroom screen arrivals coming through the metal detector. Inside, one marshal sits in the corner of the back bench guarding the front door. Another stands near the courtroom's back door, just off the jury box. Still another sits in the front row of the spectator's gallery, near the low door that separates the trial players from the rest of us.
The defendants and their dozen attorneys are seated in an "L"configuration facing the judge and jury box. Two federal marshals flank each defendant. The room's high windows make it impossible to see anyone in court from the street or adjacent buildings.
The courtroom is packed with people and technology. Laptop computers line the lawyers tables. Evidence screens are mounted on those tables, on the judge's desk, and in the jury box. Three booths house interpreters translating court proceedings simultaneously into Arabic and Swahili.
"Other than the interpreters' booths, the courtroom has the normal appearance of a multi-defendant trial," Ricco says, crediting Judge Leonard Sand for maintaining an orderly atmosphere amid heightened security.
The defense attorneys have been granted a workroom for use during trial breaks, but the most convenient passage to it has been sealed off. The attorneys have to take two elevators to get to it.
The marshals, in charge of courthouse security, have reason to be on alert for surprises.
El Hage once leapt out of his seat and charged at Judge Sand in a pre-trial hearing. Sand was not hurt. Sand is under constant watch from federal marshals, who drive him to and from court every day.
Another defendant in U.S. custody, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, allegedly stabbed a jail guard in the eye after meeting with his attorney. Salim would be in the courtroom standing trial now had it not been for the incident two months ago.
The prosecutors now have an additional layer of security, too. A tent has been erected outside the office building housing the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Soon, all visitors will be required to pass through metal detectors and pass their bags through X-ray machines before entering the building, where they will have to do it again inside.
"They've done their job," Dratel says of the marshals, "and they've done it without intruding on our situation."
Jury selection continues into second week
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