Earlier this year, the prosecution in the military death penalty case of alleged mastermind of the 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was dealt a stunning setback by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which vacated more than four years of rulings in the case issued by former presiding judge Colonel Vance Spath. A few months later, the prosecution unsuccessfully attempted to reinstate many of these rulings under a new judge but instead received further rebuke from the court. The federal government has been seeking a death sentence against Mr. al-Nashiri since 2011 through the Court of Military Commission Review system but is still mired in pretrial proceedings, almost 10 years later.
Col. Spath was appointed to preside over Mr. al-Nashiri’s trial in the fall of 2014. In late summer of 2017, three members of Mr. al-Nashiri’s defense team quit, citing the government’s monitoring of attorney-client communications. This move left only one attorney, Lieutenant Alaric Piette, to defend Mr. al-Nashiri—even though Lt. Piette possessed none of the necessary training or experience to serve as lead counsel in a capital case. Over the course of the next several months, Col. Spath unsuccessfully sought to compel the defense team to return to the case, while Lt. Piette participated in the ongoing pretrial proceedings only to say at every juncture that he objected to the case moving forward without the assistance of “learned counsel.” On February 16, 2018, Col. Spath abated the proceedings in the case. That summer rumors began to circulate that Col. Spath had been seeking an immigration judgeship while still presiding over Mr. al-Nashiri’s case. These rumors were confirmed in September 2018, when the DOJ published a list of new immigration judges that included Col. Spath.