Like many angered by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Marine Lt. Col. Stuart Couch was eager to do his part for his country.
In 2003, when Couch was assigned to prosecute one of the purported masterminds behind that tragedy, he was ready to deliver justice to someone who allegedly had caused so much pain to so many Americans, including himself.
Couch’s good friend Michael Horrocks had been a co-pilot in the second plane that tore into the World Trade Center. Their wives worked at the same hospital. “We double dated,” Couch said.
But in the end, Couch decided not to bring charges against Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the alleged terrorist, stating Slahi’s confession and much of the other incriminating evidence was coerced through torture.
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That choice brought him both scorn and admiration from peers.
Now retired from the military and serving as a federal immigration judge in Charlotte, Couch shared his experiences in the post-9/11 military commissions to a packed room at UNC Charlotte on March 20.
Jess Bravin, a journalist who wrote about Couch in “The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay,” joined the discussion.
UNCC’s Pre-Law Society and the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology sponsored the lecture.
Captured and imprisoned at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Slahi had been labeled by others a chief organizer in the 9/11 attacks. Evidence piled up against him, along with a confession from Slahi himself.
But as Couch learned how the incriminating information was pulled from Slahi – through weeks of mental and physical abuse that included mock executions and insinuations of sexual abuse toward his mother – Couch was faced with a new dilemma on three different levels.
“I knew as a prosecutor, if this was how we’re getting the information, then it’s probably false,” said Couch. “As an American, I had a problem with it. This isn’t how Americans treat people. And as a Christian, I was completely offended.”
In the early days after 9/11, military commissions at Guantanamo Bay set up by the Bush administration called for an “any means necessary” approach to collecting information from al-Qaida detainees.
Couch said he understood the motive at the time. “We were furious that someone came over here and killed almost 3,000 of our countrymen. Let’s face it: We wanted revenge,” he said. “I wanted revenge for the fact that they killed a friend of mine and the Americans that they did.”
The push-back from his superior officer, when Couch told him why the case should be dropped, was unexpected, said Couch.
“He said, ‘What makes you think you’re so much better than anybody else?’ ” Couch recalled. He said he believes the case, and the attention surrounding it, may have been a factor in his not getting the final promotion he had aimed for.
Others applauded his efforts: In 2007, Couch was awarded the American Bar Association’s Minister of Justice Award for his treatment of the Slahi case.
In 2009, the German Bar Association honored him with its Pro Reo Award for his actions.
In the end, Couch said, he doesn’t regret the decision to drop the charges. He would have liked to have brought Slahi, who still sits in Guantanamo Bay with little likelihood of being charged, to justice – but only the right way.
“Revenge is an element of it. Retribution is an element of it and is a legitimate doctrine when it comes to punishment,” he said. “But you have to have justice with it. You have to have truth.”