Twenty-five years after the first World Trade Center bombing, the Hon. Kevin T. Duffy ’58 (Ret.) and counsel who participated in the historic trial of four co-conspirators in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York shared recollections from the case during an event held on Feb. 28 in the Gorman Moot Courtroom.
On Feb. 26, 1993, a Ryder rental van packed with explosives detonated inside the garage underneath the World Trade Center’s North Tower, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000. Just eight months later, four men accused of perpetrating the attack were put on trial in the Southern District of New York. The subsequent five-month trial, which included 207 government witnesses, 15 defense witnesses, and 3,000 exhibits, culminated in the conviction of all four men on March 4, 1994.
“The trial is important not for the number of witnesses nor the number of exhibits nor for the speed with which it was completed,” said Duffy, who served 44 years on the federal bench. “It’s important because it was a first.”
The World Trade Center bombing case represented the first time an Article III court tried such a case, Duffy explained. Prior to the World Trade Center bombing, military commissions or war tribunals heard cases involving alleged war criminals. No manual existed for how to try such a case in a district court, but Duffy endeavored to preside over the case “like any other criminal case.” The challenge only increased when Judge Duffy granted a defendant’s speedy trial motion, ensuring the defendants would be tried the same year as their crimes. John Byrnes, who at the time was a supervisor from the Federal Defenders of New York, explained why the granting of the motion was significant.
“If the government had had more time, it would have been even more difficult for the defense,” Byrnes said. “Normally the last thing the defense counsel wants is a speedy trial in most cases, because you can work out a deal. In this case, the speedy trial made it very difficult for the government.”
“I knew that the world would be looking to see if the rules would be applied differently for this type of case, and they were not,” Duffy said.
In addition to Judge Duffy, the 25th anniversary panel included then-senior assistant U.S. attorneys J. Gilmore Childers and Henry John DePippo, then-assistant U.S. attorneys Lev L. Dassin and Michael Garcia, defense counsel Austin V. Campriello. Both sides shared insights into their preparation for a massive, groundbreaking trial within a tight time frame, the case’s emotional resonance, and the personal toll it took on them.
Prosecutors bypassed the normal narrative opening—establishing how the defendants knew one another and were connected to the crime—when the trial opened in October. Instead, prosecutors provided jurors with survivor testimony—“a dramatic way to start a trial that was—frankly—long, tedious, and boring,” DePippo explained.
“We didn’t have a witness who could tell the whole story. For the most part we did not have eyewitnesses. Our evidence were shards of metal, scraps of paper, receipts, and phone records,” added DePippo, who is today a partner with Kirkland & Ellis LLP. The trail of evidence unveiled over five months proved that a bombing occurred, that the bomb was housed inside the Ryder van, and that the defendants planned the attack, right down to the purchase of the explosives used in what they hoped would be an attack that would cause the Twin Towers to collapse and kill 100,000 people.
The prosecution’s depictions of human tragedy, as of result of the defendant’s actions, connected with not only the jury but also the entire courtroom, Campriello said.
“When the government presented evidence of the people who died, particularly in the case of the pregnant woman (Monica Rodriguez Smith), the courtroom became so eerily quiet that it was chilling,” shared Campriello, now a partner with Bryan Cave. “I’ve done other murder trials, and I’ve never had that type of experience. In fact, I think some of the jurors started to cry. It was just an unbelievable moment of human sympathy for the people who died.”
Asked by the Hon. P. Kevin Castel of the Southern District of New York how he maintained juror morale through the long trial, Duffy responded that the jurors were “truly unselfish” and considered this experience “an honor to serve.” Good food and decent breaks also helped, Duffy said.
The trial also required significant sacrifice from the judge and counsel, as well as from their families.
Childers, his wife, and their 2-year-old daughter were under 24-hour guard by U.S. Marshals for two years. When his daughter attended nursery school, an officer joined her.
“You sort of expect a certain level of threat when you do violent crime prosecutions, but you don’t buy into this,” said Childers, who prosecuted Mafia cases for eight or nine years prior to the World Trade Center bombing case. “For me, it wasn’t as bad as it was for my family, because I went to work every day and had a mission.”
Duffy’s involvement with the U.S. Marshals lasted significantly longer. After future 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden mentioned the judge’s name in a fatwa, federal law enforcement shadowed Duffy for 11 years.
In the years following the first World Trade Center bombing trial, Duffy presided over two more major terrorism trials: the first involving two defendants tied to the World Trade Center bombing, who had initially fled the United States, and the second involving a defendant who plotted to blow up 12 airliners.
“I look at the first case and think maybe I did make mistakes, but they were minor,” Duffy concluded. “I have no regret because nothing human beings do is perfect. The defendants got a truly fair trial, and I am sure justice was done.”
Photos by Chris Taggart.