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Why are families of Sept. 11 victims waiting for a legal settlement?


Family members of those killed in the September 11 terror attacks say they're frustrated that there has been no trial. Last year, after more than two decades of waiting, there seemed to be a breakthrough when settlement talks began. But as NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer reports, those talks are now in limbo.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Adele Welty's son was a New York City firefighter. On September 11, 2001, he responded to a call that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center, and he never came home again. At the time, Adele Welty was 65 years old.

ADELE WELTY: I am presently 86 years old. And I would like this resolved in my lifetime.

PFEIFFER: Welty hoped the U.S. military court in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would convict the 9/11 attackers. But the case has been dragging on for over 20 years, and Welty got fed up with Guantanamo's dysfunction and gridlock.

WELTY: It all seemed as though it could never be resolved.

PFEIFFER: So she was elated when she heard that alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-defendants might plead guilty in return for up to life sentences.

WELTY: There needs to be accountability. And life in prison with no chance of parole is justice, in my view.

PFEIFFER: So what's preventing the settlement talks from moving more quickly? After all, for the past year, the 9/11 judge has canceled all public hearings in the case so lawyers can focus on negotiating. And several top government officials who once supported a trial now want plea deals. Yet after 12 months of talks, there's no resolution.

ALKA PRADHAN: From our end, I mean, we're just waiting.

PFEIFFER: Alka Pradhan is a lawyer for one of the 9/11 defendants.

PRADHAN: Really, until we get a go-ahead that the agencies even want to continue with plea negotiations, everything is stuck.

PFEIFFER: She and other Guantanamo lawyers are waiting for the Biden administration to address several key issues, like where the prisoners would serve their sentences and what health care they'd receive, since some of them have injuries from torture.

SCOTT ROEHM: There's no reason, after 10-plus months, that these questions couldn't and shouldn't be answered by the higher-ups in the administration.

PFEIFFER: That's Scott Roehm, who runs the Washington, D.C., office of the Center for Victims of Torture. He says President Biden could speed up the process, and Roehm wishes he would, even though he knows a settlement would anger people who want the 9/11 defendants put on trial and executed.

ROEHM: But for anyone who objects to resolving the case with a plea agreement, I'd ask them, what's the alternative?

PFEIFFER: And although federal courts have successfully prosecuted hundreds of terrorism cases, Roehm says moving the 9/11 case to federal court at this point is a practical and legal impossibility. That's despite the military court being widely viewed as irreparably broken.

ROEHM: The 9/11 case is not going to trial in the military commissions. It is not remotely close to that, and it never will be.

PFEIFFER: But President Biden has been publicly silent about the 9/11 settlement talks. For now, his administration's focus at Guantanamo seems to be releasing prisoners who have already been cleared to leave. Thirty-two men are still being held there. In the past month, three inmates have been let go. These are prisoners not related to the 9/11 case. But the ongoing 9/11 delays test the patience of Glenn Morgan. His father died in the World Trade Center collapse.

GLENN MORGAN: With the passage of time, I spend more time trying to let go of my anger.

PFEIFFER: Morgan wants the 9/11 defendants to receive the death penalty. But after two decades of political logjam at Guantanamo, he would settle for a plea deal.

MORGAN: It really would be sad if people like my mother die without seeing her husband's killers get prosecuted.

PFEIFFER: The longer the 9/11 case goes on, the more he worries the defendants will die without being found guilty.

MORGAN: And that's a tragedy that's just completely avoidable. And shame on us if we as Americans or our politicians can't get out of our own way.

PFEIFFER: But the Defense Department is lowering expectations for a quick resolution. It told NPR that settlement talks are expected to continue for, quote, "some time."

Sacha Pfeiffer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.