In discussing the Manhattan truck attack with his Cabinet on Wednesday, President Donald Trump denounced the American criminal justice system as “a laughingstock” and “a joke” that is too weak to deter terrorism and too slow to mete out punishment.
Experts, however, said the United States is tougher on terrorism than most other nations, and they called Trump’s claim that extremists who launch attacks on American soil “go through court for years” an exaggeration.
But the president barreled ahead in a Twitter post minutes before midnight Wednesday, already assuming the guilt of the suspect in the Manhattan attack, Sayfullo Saipov, and advocating his execution.
Earlier in the day, as he sat across the table from Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a Cabinet meeting, Trump said he would “certainly consider” transferring Saipov to the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to face a harsher trial than going through civilian courts.
“We also have to come up with punishment that’s far quicker and far greater than the punishment these animals are getting right now. They’ll go through court for years,” Trump said. “We need quick justice, and we need strong justice, much quicker and much stronger than we have right now. Because what we have right now is a joke and it’s a laughingstock. And no wonder so much of this stuff takes place.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, later said the president was “simply pointing out his frustration of how long that this process takes, how costly this process is, and particularly for someone to be a known terrorist, that process should move faster.”
It is worth noting that attackers in deadly terrorism plots in the United States are “rarely caught alive,” said Karen Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law.
The attackers were killed in deadly shootings believed to be inspired by Islamic extremists in 2002 at Los Angeles International Airport; in 2015 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and in San Bernardino, California; and in 2016 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
Suspects who do survive their attacks have been dealt with swiftly and severely in federal courts.
In September 2009, authorities arrested Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant who led an al-Qaida plot to bomb the New York subway to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He was convicted of terrorism charges five months later; as of last month, his sentence was still pending as he works with the government as a cooperating witness. One of Zazi’s conspirators, Adis Medunjanin, was sentenced in 2012 to life in prison.
Police arrested Dzhokhar Tsarnaev four days after he and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, set off two bombs in April 2013 during the Boston Marathon. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was initially interrogated under a federal rule that allows waiving constitutional Miranda rights in terrorism cases; he was convicted two years later and sentenced in May 2015 to the death penalty. (Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed during a police manhunt for the brothers four days after the marathon. The autopsy report said he was “shot by police then run over and dragged by motor vehicle.”)
Last month, a jury in U.S. District Court in Manhattan convicted Ahmad Khan Rahimi for planting bombs in New York and New Jersey in September 2016. He will spend the rest of his life in prison. The FBI quickly identified and arrested Rahimi after the attack, which wounded more than 30, and withheld his Miranda protections against self-incrimination.
And last Sunday, FBI agents and Navy SEALs captured a suspect in the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya — an operation approved by the White House. The suspect, Mustafa al-Imam, was taken to an American warship for questioning and is expected to brought to the United States this week to face charges.
From Sept. 11, 2001, to the end of 2015, the Justice Department reported a total of 627 public terrorism or terrorism-related convictions. In most of the cases, convictions were brought within two years after indictments were issued. Many of those that took longer involved extraditing suspects to the United States from abroad.
“My impression is that the U.S. has higher conviction rates and higher sentences for terrorism charges than the U.K., Australia or Canada,” said Kent Roach, an expert in comparative terrorism law at the University of Toronto. “I cannot think of another country, except perhaps China, that would have higher convictions and longer sentences in terrorism cases than the United States.”
About 87 percent of resolved terrorism cases in the decade after the 2001 attacks resulted in convictions, with an average sentence of 14 years in prison, according to the Center on Law and Security at New York University.
And cases related to the Islamic State — from March 1, 2014, when the Justice Department secured its first indictment of a suspect with links to the terrorist group, to Aug. 1, 2017 — had even higher conviction and sentencing rates: 100 percent and 14.5 years.
“Everybody gets convicted eventually,” Greenberg said.
Far more important to the legitimacy of the justice system than harsh sentences or conviction rates, she said, are transparency, due process and a fair trial: “I think we do it really well.”
On Thursday morning, the president backed off the idea of sending Saipov to Guantánamo Bay because that process could take longer than the civilian court system. But he doubled down on his demand for the death penalty.