- The Washington Times - Friday, August 21, 2009

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. | Perhaps it’s the reinforced glass windows, the blast-resistant walls or the watchful eyes of surveillance cameras around every corner.

Whatever the reason, the heavily secured U.S. District Court building here - built under the Pentagon’s anti-terrorism force-protection standards - has emerged in recent days as a likely site to hold trials for detainees from U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Other attractions include a reputation for the speedy resolution of cases in the Eastern District of Virginia, which also includes courthouses in Alexandria, Richmond and Norfolk. That track record has earned the district the nickname “Rocket Docket.”

Yet another consideration that could bring some of the Sept. 11 terrorism cases to Newport News is the fact that one of the attacks occurred on Virginia soil - at the Pentagon.

Some residents of Alexandria, which hosted the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui and other prominent terrorism cases, have balked at the prospect of trying the Guantanamo cases, in large part because the courthouse sits in a more densely populated area.

The Newport News courthouse is located on a fairly remote stretch of land, in a largely industrial district surrounded by parking lots. The closest neighbor is the shiny, sleek building across the street that houses the Virginia Advanced Shipbuilding and Carrier Integration Center run by Northrop Grumman Corp.

On the other side is the Warwick, an old hotel that has been converted into affordable housing units.

Merrell Holmes, 49, lives at the Warwick and is untroubled by the prospect of terrorism trials being held next door.

“If they do what they’re supposed to do, it’s fine,” he said. “If it was a trial for one of us, no one would give it a second thought.”

The prospect of terrorism trials in Newport News also makes sense to Pearlie Johnson, 58.

“If you look around, you see high-security cameras everywhere,” she said, pointing to the rooftop cameras on the 10-story City Hall nearby.

“I moved here when they were laying the foundation. I’ve been in there, too, on the first floor,” she said, motioning toward the courthouse. “It’s really secure.”

She noted that the courthouse was used for the high-profile bankruptcy trial of NFL quarterback Michael Vick, which attracted television trucks and scores of reporters from across the country.

Adam DeLaigle, 37, who works at City Hall, said Vick is much better known than any of the terrorism detainees and his trial went smoothly. “It was under control. It was secure,” he said.

Kim Lee, a city spokeswoman, said that if Newport News - Virginia’s fifth largest incorporated city with a population of nearly 180,000 - is selected as a site for the trials, officials will be prepared.

“We will do whatever it takes,” she said.

The 40,000-square-foot courthouse, which opened last year, would provide a forbidding setting for such trials. Its glistening glass and steel are unable to camouflage the high-tech security measures.

On days when court is not in session, visitors may not travel above the first floor. Security guards are still stationed in the lobby and, as in many other courthouses, no telephones or electronic devices are allowed in the building.

Cameras are on every side of the building - three are within sight of the front door and four can be seen from the back. The parking lot can be reached only by driving past a gate with controlled steel spikes in the road. Cement barricades ensure that only pedestrians can approach the doors. Retaining walls are decorated with grass and flowers but raise the approach to the building several feet above the sidewalk.

The U.S. Marshals Service is in charge of courthouse security. For John R. Hackman, the marshal for the Eastern District who oversees security at the Newport News courthouse, Guantanamo detainee trials would be handled as other trials.

“The Marshals Service has a long-standing history of being able to handle these prisoners and ensuring there is an integrity in the courtroom and courthouse that is conducive to having fair trials,” Mr. Hackman said. “You’re going to have concerns, you’re going to have pros and cons, and you make the best of the given situation. That would be taken into consideration if it comes to Newport News - that’s a big ‘if.’ The venue or venues have not been chosen, and I want to stress that.”

Justice Department officials say no decisions have been made as to where the trials, which could include that of the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, will be held.

Dean Boyd, spokesman for the department’s National Security Division, said U.S. attorneys and prosecutors from the Office of Military Commissions are reviewing cases to determine the best course of action.

“We can’t speculate on the possible location of future prosecutions of Guantanamo Bay detainees at this time, given the fact that decisions have not yet been made on whether individual cases might be tried in reformed military commissions or federal courts,” he said.

But even with a structure as secure as the courthouse, some fear that trying Guantanamo Bay detainees in Newport News will expose the community to the risk of terrorist attacks.

“From my perspective, it makes Newport News a prime target for a terrorist attack, if anything like that is even being planned,” Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton said.

The Newport News Republican said the courthouse is too close to the shipyard’s research center and that the throng of reporters at the Vick trial seemed to overwhelm the area.

“We’ve got thousands of workers in that vicinity every day,” he said. “That courthouse couldn’t handle the media crowd for the Vick bankruptcy.”

Rep. Rob Wittman, Virginia Republican, sent a letter Aug. 13 to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. expressing his concerns that homeland security would be compromised if the detainees are brought to the U.S. for trial.

“I have some real heartburn about that,” Mr. Wittman said. “Newport News is not the place. Period. Virginia is not the place. The U.S. is not the place. This thing better be thought through pretty clearly.”

In his letter, Mr. Wittman asked a series of questions ranging from detainee transportation to and from courthouses to whether the Justice Department is fully equipped to handle the burden of bringing high-profile criminals to a smaller location in such a short amount of time.

“I have grave concerns with trying the mastermind of the September 11th attacks across the street from the design shops of our nuclear-powered carriers,” he wrote.

Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Democrat who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security, also expressed concerns.

“Issues of security for the trials, and for all those associated with and affected by them - including the public in the areas near the trials - is of paramount importance and must be fully addressed,” he said.

Kristi Jourdan reported from Washington.

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