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Documentary Follows Attorneys Who Represent People Accused Of Terrorism In U.S.


When criminal defense lawyers are asked why they defend people accused of heinous crimes, they often point to their role in protecting our system of justice for all. But lawyers who defend people facing terrorism charges find themselves defending individuals who may very well want to shatter that system of justice. These attorneys may be called traitors. They may face death threats. And they're up against a government that devotes tremendous resources to defeating them.

Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellmann directed and produced a documentary airing on PBS that profiles three defense lawyers who have represented accused terrorists. The documentary is called "The Devil's Advocate." Habiba Nosheen joins us now.


HABIBA NOSHEEN: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So when you first set out to make this film, what was the driving question you wanted to answer about these lawyers?

NOSHEEN: I think what was important to us was, what is it like to represent some of the most hated men in the world, you know, people accused of terrorism? And how does that work spill over into your personal life? How do you explain to your children, explain to your, you know, family what you do day to day?

CHANG: And how did you end up picking these three defense lawyers that you ultimately profiled?

NOSHEEN: We wanted people who came into this work with different motivations because we knew from our research they are very different. You know, defense attorneys do this for all sorts of reasons. So we wanted to...

CHANG: Yeah.

NOSHEEN: ...Make sure that we captured that diversity of opinions and how lawyers approach this work.

CHANG: So really briefly, what would you say were the different motivations that drove these defense lawyers to defend terrorism suspects?

NOSHEEN: I thought a lot about that. And for Tamar Birckhead, I think for her, it's really about doing that job. And, you know, she's Jewish. And in one of the scenes in the film, she's explaining to her children what she would do if she was tasked with representing Hitler.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: He's somebody who did a awful thing.

TAMAR BIRCKHEAD: Well, if he were poor and he were charged with a criminal offense and I was appointed to represent him, I'd represent him.

NOSHEEN: And to explain that to your children who are, you know, 12 or something at that time, that's - that shows her conviction of what she does and how she approaches it. For Pardiss Kebriaei, who defended somebody who was held at Gitmo, her approach, I think, is very in a legal sense. Like, this is - you know, constitutionally this person should not be held for over 12 years without charge. And that is what drives her to represent these people. That was my understanding.

CHANG: Well, with Stanley Cohen - he was the lawyer who represented Osama bin Laden's son-in-law - he almost seemed to reject the very idea of calling certain crimes terrorism. Like, he points to Nelson Mandela, who was on the terrorist watchlist until 2008. And he points to Malcolm X, who was monitored by the FBI and then later honored on a postage stamp. And Stanley Cohen says this.


STANLEY COHEN: The difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is who wins.

CHANG: What did you make of that, Habiba? Like, what does that tell you about what motivates Stanley Cohen to defend the clients he defends?

NOSHEEN: I think Stanley Cohen in particular approaches this work in a way that he understands. And his politics of this are that the work that he's doing is to defend people's right to speak up for themselves. And sometimes there are some causes where people take up violent actions, and that's understandable. I'm not saying he condones it, but he gets that world. And that's the world he navigates in. And he represents a lot of people accused of terrorism from the Middle East. And for him, he sees these examples of people who were seen in American history as - at one point, as not being people that were safe. And, you know, decades later, we celebrate them. You know, he says that, you know, when Nelson Mandela died, people were stepping all over themselves, essentially, to be at his funeral. That's not the treatment he got all through his life, even from the American government.

CHANG: You know, one of the things that really fascinated me is that some of these lawyers feel like they like their clients. This was certainly evident with Tamar Birckhead, the lawyer who represented Richard Reid, known as the shoe bomber. What was interesting, at one point, you ask her whether it seemed Richard Reid had any regrets about what he did.


BIRCKHEAD: And maybe people will say that I'm not being realistic, but I think there was a big part of him that was relieved that no one was hurt.

CHANG: First of all, can I just ask, why did you ask her that?

NOSHEEN: Because I wanted to understand, does it make it easier for her to do her job if she believes that that person ultimately was remorseful? Does remorse have anything to do with if a lawyer in her situation would decide to take on a case or not? And when she answered that, yes, she felt that he was remorseful, to me, that implied that perhaps that that is a reason why she may take on a client because she believes, well, yes, they did this. They're - but they're now sorry, and they deserve another chance.

CHANG: Did you ever ask her if she needed to like her clients in order to fully represent and defend them?

NOSHEEN: Yes. And she said that that's a big part of her job, is to make sure she likes them so she can humanize them, so she can express to the jury and to, you know, the judge and everyone in the public that this is a human being and not just this person who is accused of doing this heinous crime.

CHANG: Well, what's notable is you corresponded with Richard Reid in prison. You told him what Tamar Birckhead said about him, that maybe he was partly relieved that no one was hurt. Tell us, what did Reid write back to you?

NOSHEEN: Yes, he sent me letters to my home, which terrified my partner.


NOSHEEN: But, you know, we corresponded for over a year and, you know, in dozens of letters. And how he responds to this is, no, she's wrong. I believe in what I did, and I am not sorry for what I attempted to do. And it didn't work out, but it is what it is.

CHANG: Yeah. And what your film makes clear is that even someone who fully understands what he did and is not at all remorseful about what he did, that person still deserves fair representation in our justice system. Let me ask you, ultimately, after talking to all of these lawyers and making this film, what do you think? Is our system of justice more stacked against people accused of terrorism than, say, other types of criminal defendants?

NOSHEEN: Oh, absolutely. After 9/11, you know, everything is on the table in terms of what the government can expect to - you know, in terms of resources. Everybody's on board. Yes, this is important. We will not let another 9/11 happen. So our courts have changed and evolved a lot post-9/11 to really make sure that anybody who we suspect is leaning that way, that they are put away.

CHANG: Habiba Nosheen's documentary is called "The Devil's Advocate." It's available for streaming on until February 5.

Thank you so much for speaking with us, Habiba.

NOSHEEN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRENTEMOLLER'S "MISS YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.