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Toobin: Civilian courts likely to handle bomb case

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 23-year-old defendant in attempted plane bombing is being held by U.S. marshals
  • Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin says the case is probably headed to civilian court
  • Some Republicans want defendant tried by a military tribunal
  • Airport security: What does Israel do that the U.S. does not? "AC360°," CNN tonight, 10 ET
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(CNN) -- The 23-year-old Nigerian man who has been charged with attempting to blow up a Detroit-bound international flight on Christmas Day is likely to be treated as a regular criminal defendant, according to CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab is being held by the U.S Marshals Service in an undisclosed location. He has been charged with attempting to destroy the plane and placing a destructive device on the aircraft, which carried 300 passengers.

"He is an ordinary criminal defendant at this point, and he is likely to remain that way," Toobin said. "There is no indication that his case will, or should, be treated any differently than that of Richard Reid, who was charged with a very similar crime."

Reid pleaded guilty seven years ago to trying to blow up a jetliner flying from Paris, France, to Miami, Florida, in December 2001 using explosives hidden in his shoes. He is serving life in prison at the high-security "Supermax" federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado.

Several Republican members of Congress have called for prosecuting AbdulMutallab before a military tribunal rather than in civilian courts.

Tom Ridge, who served as Homeland Security secretary under President George W. Bush, said on "Larry King Live," "I take a look at this individual who has been charged criminally, does that mean he gets his Miranda warnings? The only information we get is if he volunteers it? He's not a citizen of this country. He's a terrorist, and I don't think he deserves the full range of protections of our criminal justice system embodied in the Constitution of the United States."

Toobin spoke with CNN on Tuesday:

CNN: What's in store for the defendant?

Jeffrey Toobin: He's entitled to a jury trial like any other criminal defendant.

CNN: Does it make a difference that he's not an American citizen?

Toobin: The fact that he's not a citizen makes no difference. He has the same rights as any other criminal defendant, citizen or non-citizen.

CNN: What happens if it's shown that he acted on behalf of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which claimed responsibility for the incident?

Toobin: The legal system has already proven that it can deal with cases involving al Qaeda. Zacarias Moussaoui was obviously connected to al Qaeda in some way, and he's already been sentenced.

I don't see any basis for treating this guy differently than Richard Reid, who was promptly and successfully prosecuted in a civilian court. Moving him into a military tribunal would add tremendous legal uncertainty, because there hasn't been a successful military tribunal, one which has been upheld by the courts, since World War II.

CNN: What impact could this case have on the effort to close the Guantanamo prison?

Toobin: If it's true that Yemen was involved, and if it's true that released Guantanamo prisoners played some part, then it will make it more difficult. I think you need to be very careful in making assumptions about who did what in this case. In addition, it is not a debatable proposition that Guantanamo has to close. The president says it has to close. The Supreme Court says people need to be charged or released. The timing is negotiable, the closing is not.

If there was an easy solution to Guantanamo, it would have been tried by now. The problem is that many of the detainees seem to be in a legal twilight where there is not enough evidence to bring a legal case against them, but there is too much evidence simply to release them -- or no country can be found that will accept them.

CNN: This case has led to new security restrictions at airports. Are there legal issues associated with increased surveillance and screening?

Toobin: The courts have never settled the issue of how much privacy airline travelers are entitled to, but it seems pretty clear the answer is not very much.

The TSA is going to be sensitive to the issue of making every traveler in the U.S. look naked on a video screen. Those more intrusive techniques raise all sorts of questions, not only about the original screening but about what happens to preserved images and whether they can be sold or illegally distributed.