Short of handing over Osama bin Laden, the “underwear bomber” accused of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day isn’t likely to strike up a deal with prosecutors that will set him free any time soon, legal experts say.
“I don’t think they’re going to be flexible, short of him giving them phenomenal active intelligence,” said Brian M. Legghio, a former federal prosecutor in Detroit. “They’re going to be looking at lengthy prison time, 40 or 50 years, if not life.”
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 24, hinted in court Monday that he might plead guilty to some of the charges. The Nigerian national also fired his court-appointed attorneys, saying they weren’t representing his best interests. He will represent himself.
Just what kind of deal he can hammer out on his own is unclear, but legal experts say he’s made that task all the more difficult by firing his lawyers, who had met with prosecutors on multiple occasions to try to work out a plea deal, according to court records.
“I think that’s a huge tactical mistake on his part,” said defense attorney Thomas Cranmer, a former Detroit federal prosecutor who has represented a number of high-profile criminal defendants. “I have great respect for the people in the Federal Defender Office. I know they were working very hard to achieve the best results for him under the circumstances. I would be surprised if he could do better or certainly as well as the federal defenders.”
Defense attorney Sanford Plotkin, a former federal defender in Detroit, added: “The Federal Defender Office has some of the most capable attorneys in town to handle this case.”
The Justice Department declined comment on the matter. One government source said that if he is convicted or pleads guilty, Abdulmutallab is likely to get life in prison. The ultimate decision would be left up to U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds.
From all reports, the government appears to have overwhelming evidence against Abdulmutallab. The Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit carried nearly 300 people, many of whom witnessed the incident. Many said an explosive device in his pants could be seen smoking after he allegedly tried to detonate it. Others reported hearing Abdulmutallab say he had a bomb.
Abdulmutallab is said to have provided U.S. authorities with information about his contacts in Yemen, where al-Qaida operatives allegedly trained him. And earlier this year, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Abdulmutallab had provided valuable information.
That being said, former D.C. U.S. Attorney Roscoe C. Howard Jr. says Abdulmutallab’s cooperation may not amount to all that much.
“Sometimes in life you get to walk out as a free man again. Sometimes that’s all you’re hoping for. Sometimes the government will say, ‘I can’t promise anything,’ and you can hope the government is lenient at a later time,” Howard said.
He added that the government could offer Abdulmutallab a better prison facility for his cooperation.
When negotiating a plea deal, the Justice Department will have to look at the other issues besides the quality of the information being provided — such as the public’s reaction to a deal that falls short of a life sentence, Howard said.
“I can guarantee you they are concerned about public opinion,” Howard said. “They read the papers, they listen to the news shows.”
Still, he said, the government has to do the right thing. “Your decision can’t be based on a popularity contest.”
Howard said one test he used while serving as a U.S. attorney in Washington from 2001 to 2004 was “The Washington Post test. If something appears on the top of the page of The Washington Post and you can’t explain it, don’t do it.”
Abdulmutallab could opt to go to trial and roll the dice. But former Detroit federal prosecutor David Griem said that’s probably not a great option.
“Whether Abdulmutallab represents himself or brings in Clarence Darrow from the dead to represent him, the result is going to be exactly the same: He’s going to get convicted on all counts.”