By George Brennan Cape Cod Times
Patricia DeConto has always been the picture of grace.
When she talks about her son, Gerald DeConto, the Navy captain killed in the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon, it is with love and pride for the son she calls “Jerry.”
But when the Sandwich mother traveled to Guantanamo Bay detention camp Oct. 21 to witness the pretrial hearings for five alleged terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks, the frustration and anger of 12 years without her son and 12 years without justice boiled over.
That anger and frustration was spurred on by what she saw — debate over a half-dozen motions among hundreds that seemed to go nowhere and defense attorneys for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, considered by U.S. officials to be the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, and the four other defendants continually bringing up torture.
“It’s all just to stymie the case from going forward,” DeConto said. One defense lawyer would speak and then he would be followed by the others saying the same thing or going on another rant, she said. “It’s just the most aggravating thing that you could ever watch.”
Along with Mohammed, the other accused terrorists include Walid Muhammed Salih Mubarak Bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al-Hawsawi. Each is accused of the “planning and execution of the attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa., resulting in the killing of 2,976 people,” according to the Defense Department. The charges include murder, attacks on civilians, hijacking aircraft and terrorism.
When DeConto, 82, told her family she was going to Gitmo to witness a week of the court proceedings, her children were worried. “I was determined to go, and there’s no reason I couldn’t go myself,” DeConto said.
Her daughter, Dale Choate of Mashpee, rearranged her schedule so she could go, too.
Families of the September 11 attacks have been invited to witness the court proceedings since the military commissions began in 2009, said Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a spokesman for the Department of Defense program. They are chosen through a lottery system, though DeConto and Choate were filling in last minute for another family who couldn’t attend.
DeConto and Choate had to pay their own way to Washington, D.C. From there, they traveled to the base as guests of the United States government on a chartered airliner transporting attorneys and support staff for the case, Breasseale said. The families stay in townhouses on the base and are given a stipend for meals. “The cost is low,” Breasseale said.
Within the base is a town that includes restaurants, stores and even a bowling alley, DeConto said.
During the week, the families met with prosecutors, and even the defense attorneys made time for them.
“I have to give them credit for meeting with the family members,” Choate said.
Choate wanted to confront Cheryl Bormann, the attorney for Bin Attash who wore a hijab during last year’s arraignments at her client’s request, but Bormann did not go to the meeting with families. The next day, Choate found her opportunity outside the courthouse where she questioned Bormann’s decision to wear a hijab, which is a veil worn by some Muslim women that covers the head and chest.
“I asked her, ‘Why would an intelligent, successful woman, such as yourself, do this?’ She (Bormann) said, ‘He doesn’t respect me; this is the only way I can get through to my client,'” Choate said.
One of the other lawyers, Cmdr. Walter Ruiz, who represents Mustafa Ahmed Adam al-Hawsawi, got an earful from DeConto.
“I said to him, ‘I can’t tell you the pain it causes me to see you in that uniform, the uniform I saw on my son so many years, and you’re defending the man who murdered him. My son wore that uniform with dignity and honor,'” DeConto said. “He had nothing to say. He just looked at me like, ‘Where did this idiot come from?'”
It would not be the only time during the trip that DeConto lashed out. During a press conference toward the end of the trip, she looked out at the small group of reporters who were traveling with the families and admonished them for the lack of balance in the coverage.
“You’ve forgotten us,” she said of the victims’ families. The public needs to hear what’s going on at Gitmo — the truth, she said.
“9/11 is over for a lot of people. It’s not over for us. We have the pain of 9/11 every day,” DeConto said. “We want justice.”
Back at home in Sandwich, DeConto said the government is bending too much to men who have not only admitted their roles in the attacks, but have spoken proudly about what was done.
“Nobody said these men don’t deserve a fair trial — a fair trial, their day in court, but not 12 years of dragging this on,” she said. “I think the national press has been remiss in what they’re supposed to do.”
Both DeConto and Choate expressed their appreciation for Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor, and his team and the exhaustive task at hand.
They feel better after going to Gitmo, and Choate called it a life-changing experience.
“We’re typically more reserved,” Choate said of her family. “It’s time to take the gloves off because it’s not getting anywhere. The defense is focused on the wrong things.”
DeConto said it felt good to get some things off her chest. “You know, I did feel better telling (the attorney) off. I did. I felt better telling the press off, too. It’s the first time I’ve really expressed anger in all of these things that I’ve been through, and it kind of surprised me.”
The courtroom, built especially for this case, is huge. There are dozens of seats inside for the lawyers and translators, with the main courtroom encased in glass. Outside that glass wall, there is seating for families, the press and spectators from the base who get in by lottery. The proceedings are piped into that area on a 40-second delay — something DeConto said took some getting used to — just in case evidence or testimony is introduced that would affect national security. The laundry list of things prohibited from the courthouse — cameras, computers and even spiral bound notebooks — is extensive.
DeConto relished the opportunity to look Mohammed and the other four alleged terrorists in the eye. “The first day I just watched, but the second day I went down, before things started, stood right up against the glass to see how close I could get to these people,” DeConto said. “For a second, I thought, ‘Am I really here?’ I felt nothing except disgust and loathing for them. They seemed subhuman to me that they could do this, and they’re so proud of themselves for doing it. I don’t understand it.”
DeConto pulls no punches and refuses to cede to political correctness. She is speaking out in the memory of her Jerry.
“I definitely want to see them executed. I think that would be justice,” she said. “They did this to 3,000 innocent people who were going to work that day, mostly. There wasn’t anybody on the battlefield.”