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Americans at Odds With Recent Terror Trial Decisions

Americans at Odds With Recent Terror Trial Decisions

PRINCETON, NJ -- By 59% to 36%, more Americans believe accused Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed should be tried in a military court, rather than in a civilian criminal court. Most Republicans and independents favor holding the trial in a military court, while the slight majority of Democrats disagree.

Do You Think It Would Be Better to Hold Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's Trial in a Civilian Criminal Court or a Military Court? Among National Adults and by Political Party Affiliation

These findings come from a Nov. 20-22 USA Today/Gallup poll conducted a week after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Mohammed's case would move from a military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay, where the admitted terrorist was originally charged, to a federal court in New York City.

"Despite their sharp differences over how to bring Mohammed to justice, Republicans and Democrats largely agree that, if found guilty, he should pay the ultimate price."

Public opinion is a bit less contrary to Holder's decision regarding the venue for the trial. Although the majority of Americans (51%) say Mohammed should face trial somewhere other than New York City, 42% -- slightly higher than the percentage favoring a civilian trial -- support holding the trial in the city where the vast majority of Americans lost their lives on Sept. 11.

Do You Think It Would Be Better to Have the Trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City or Somewhere Else? Among National Adults and by Political Party Affiliation

The legal framework of Mohammed's case has clearly shifted along with the new jurisdiction, as he will now be granted certain constitutional rights and protections that would not have been afforded him in a military tribunal. Nevertheless, 7 in 10 Americans -- including a high proportion of all party groups -- believe it is very likely Mohammed will be found guilty. Only 6% think a guilty verdict is unlikely.

How Likely Do You Think It Is That Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Will Be Found Guilty?

The possibility that the federal trial would give Mohammed and the four others to be tried in New York a platform for airing their political views was raised last week, after a lawyer for one of the accused announced that the five defendants intend to plead not guilty for the express purpose of being able to "get their message out" in the trial.

Overall, 59% of Americans are at least somewhat concerned that a trial will give Mohammed such an opportunity; however, significantly fewer -- 34% -- are "very concerned." Among partisans, most of the differentiation in views on this question is seen in the percentages very concerned, ranging from 50% of Republicans to 34% of independents and 21% of Democrats.

How Concerned Are You That a Trial Will Give Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Publicity to Further His Cause?

Little Disagreement Over Pursuing Death Penalty

Holder announced last week that the Justice Department will seek the death penalty for Mohammed and four other men accused of plotting 9/11, and Americans broadly agree with this. Three-quarters (77%) say Mohammed should get the death penalty if he is found guilty, slightly higher than the percentage telling Gallup in October (65%) that they favor the death penalty for persons of convicted of murder, in general.

Despite their sharp differences over how to bring Mohammed to justice, Republicans and Democrats largely agree that, if found guilty, he should pay the ultimate price.

If Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Is Found Guilty, Do You Think He Should or Should Not Get the Death Penalty?

Bottom Line

Two weeks after Attorney General Holder announced his decision to try the five leading 9/11 terrorism suspects in federal court in New York City, controversy about those decisions abounds.

A slight majority of Americans disagree with Holder's decision to hold the Mohammed trial in New York (51% say it should be held elsewhere) and a larger proportion disagree with his decision to move the case to a civilian court (59% would prefer to have it held in a military court). Democrats are generally supportive of the Obama administration's changes in these respects, while Republicans and independents take opposing views. At the same time, relatively few Americans (particularly Democrats and independents) are very concerned that the trial will give Mohammed a publicity platform, and most Americans are confident he will be found guilty.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,017 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 20-22, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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