GREENFIELD — Hancock County Prosecutor Michael Griffin has been appointed to a new post in Cuba, one that involves direct interaction with the infamous “9/11 Five.”
Griffin, a U.S. Army Reservist who holds the rank of major, was deployed to the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay in late July. He was expected to prosecute criminal cases against service members accused of crimes during his nine-month tour as the chief of military justice for Joint Task Force Guantanamo.
Instead, Griffin’s attention has been turned toward some of the most notorious figures associated with the war on terror: those considered the masterminds of the Sept. 11 attacks, including lead defendant Khalid Shaikh Mohammad.
Mohammad, known popularly since his capture in 2003 as KSM, has claimed responsibility for the terrorist attacks that killed a total of nearly 3,000 people.
“I’m working on a capital murder case, basically,” Griffin said. “This is the heart of what the command is here to do, so I feel … a lot of responsibility. I feel really privileged to be able to do this.”
Griffin works in Legal Proceedings Support, a group responsible for various legal aspects of the military commissions of detainees. The naval base, which is located at the southeastern end of Cuba, covers about 45 square miles. Since 2002, a portion of the base has served as a controversial interrogation and detainment facility, housing suspected al Qaeda and Taliban combatants captured post 9/11.
Griffin supervises three lawyers and a paralegal for the command and works with what are referred to as “high-value” detainees like Mohammad.
There are currently 166 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, which has come under fire amid allegations of torture of those held there.
In 2009, President Barack Obama ordered the facility closed within a year, but a multitude of legal hurdles, including restrictions by Congress on what funds would be used to transfer detainees, has left the executive order in limbo.
Meanwhile, Griffin is assisting in the pre-trial motions process for Mohammad and his four co-defendants, Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin ‘Attash; Ramzi Binalshibh; Ali Abdul Aziz Ali; and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi.
The pre-trial motions cover everything from how the accused communicate with their lawyers to how they must dress in court.
In October, a judge ruled the men would be permitted to wear camouflage, sparking outrage among family members whose loved ones were killed on U.S. soil. The Associated Press reported that Mohammad and one of his co-defendants had made the request in May at their arraignment but had been denied, leading to both men ignoring the judge’s questions throughout the proceeding and refusing to use the court’s interpreter.
Court battles over such minute details are expected to delay the start of the actual trial until 2017, Griffin said.
“… It’s gonna take some years, because a capital case – every aspect of the case – is going to be litigated,” Griffin said.
Griffin is also responsible for personally notifying each defendant when one of the pre-trial sessions concerns him. The defendants are not required to attend the hearings but may attend if they choose. He also relays requests from the defendants about a variety of things, such as the conditions of their confinement, to the command for consideration.
Griffin has already had personal contact with four of the five defendants, including Mohammad, an experience he said requires him to keep his emotions firmly in check.
“I think that, like many people would imagine, when first confronted with these people, images of 9/11 come to mind, but I’ve got a very professional, important job to do, and I’m not free to express my personal sentiments about them,” Griffin said. “I have to keep a thoroughly professional attitude.”
Staff Judge Advocate Navy Capt. Thomas Welsh, the detention facility’s head lawyer, oversees Legal Proceedings Support and described Griffin as his de facto division chief.
“Michael is my right-hand man on that,” Welsh said. “I saw that he had talents that I, quite frankly, would be wasting if I just left him at military justice.”
Welsh said he was looking for someone with courtroom experience to replace a lawyer who had left the command.
“Mike, being a prosecutor, I thought he would have judgment capability to be able to handle that in a professional manner, and he hasn’t disappointed,” he said.
Griffin is not the first local elected official to be called for military duty while serving in office. In July 2004, Hancock County Superior Court 1 Judge Terry Snow was deployed for a tour in Afghanistan with the Indiana National Guard. Snow, who retired from the National Guard three years ago, served for 13 months, returning to the bench in August 2005.
While a judge pro-tem was appointed to fill in during Snow’s absence, the majority of Griffin’s duties are being handled by his chief deputy prosecutor, Tami Napier.
Napier is one of five deputies who work in the prosecutor’s office and said communication with Griffin has not been a problem.
“He’s been able to weigh in on anything he’s needed to weigh in on in a timely manner,” she said.
Napier said she and Griffin have a weekly meeting by phone but are often in contact more frequently. She cited last week as one example. She sent Griffin a simple email, asking him to call, and he was on the phone within 10 minutes.
Griffin accrues 2½ days of leave per month throughout his deployment. If he takes that leave at the end of his deployment, he could be on his way home as early as the last full week of March. His military orders officially end April 16.