On April 16, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued a sweeping decision that overturned years of rulings in the case of Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri, accused of orchestrating the U.S.S. Cole bombing in 2000. Proceedings were instituted against Al-Nashiri in 2011, and three years later, in 2014, Colonel Vance Spath began presiding over the case. In 2017, while still in pre-trial proceedings, the case received significant attention when the team of lawyers defending Al-Nashiri withdrew on ethics grounds. That left the junior-most lawyer, Lieutenant Aleric Piette, to defend Al-Nashiri alone. Lt. Piette had no meaningful capital experience or training, and asserted—consistent with the ABA’s capital defense guidelines and other standards—that he was not qualified to be lead counsel in the case.
What followed was months of argument between Col. Spath and Lt. Piette about whether the proceedings should be halted given the lack of qualified counsel. During this time, Col. Spath also went to great lengths to compel the civilian defenders to return to the case. He continued to allow the government to move forward with its case, including taking depositions and conducting “preadmission of evidence”—consisting of the testimony of over thirty prosecution witnesses. On February 16, 2018, after another unsuccessful attempt to order one of the withdrawn defense attorneys to appear, Col. Spath announced that he was indefinitely halting proceedings. He refused to dismiss the case, however, finding that doing so would “reward defense counsel” for what he perceived to be a strategy designed to disrupt the proceedings. He also announced that he was considering retirement, and while the case was on appeal to the Court of Military Commission Review (CMCR), he filed retirement paperwork. A new judge, Colonel Shelly Schools, eventually took over the case.