By Mayank Chhaya
Chicago, Mar 19 (IANS): About a dozen US marshals took position inside the court of US District Judge Harry Leinenweber minutes before Mumbai terror suspect David Coleman Headley was escorted in.
Attorneys and court reporters were for the first time put through a metal detector during this particular case. It was an unusually strong security ring whose purpose was not fully explained because his last appearance was considerably less guarded.
The 49-year-old Headley, was dressed in the standard prison issue orange jumpsuit and had his ankles chained but hands free. As Leinenweber went through the motions of establishing that he was mentally competent enough to realize the consequences of his pleading guilty to such serious charges, Headley answered politely indicating he understood.
The nearly 45-minute-long hearing featured high profile US Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald who normally does not make court appearances in most cases. It was perhaps aimed at quietly underscoring the success of getting a guilty plea out of Headley on all counts.
It was a measure of how seriously this case was being tracked at the official level that Attorney-General Eric Holder was quoted as saying, "Today's guilty plea is a crucial step forward in our efforts to achieve for the more than 160 people who lost their lives in Mumbai terrorist attacks. Working with our domestic and international partners, we will not rest until all those responsible for Mumbai attacks and the terror plot in Denmark are held accountable."
"Not only has the criminal justice system achieved a guilty plea in this case, but David Headley is now providing us with valuable intelligence about terrorist activities," Holder said.
The guilty plea can potentially affect the prospects of Headley's fellow accused, Dr. Tahawwur Hussain Rana, a Pakistani physician turned businessman of Canadian nationality but a resident of Chicago, who is a fellow accused in the Mumbai conspiracy. It is possible that as part of his cooperation agreement Headley is furnishing more information about what role Dr. Rana might have played, although he has maintained his complete innocence. Dr. Rana's case is expect to come up before the end of this month. His attorney Patrick Blegen has maintained that Rana was duped by Headley and had played no role in the Mumbai attacks.
Headley's attorney John Theis maintained that his client "felt great remorse" at the Mumbai attacks but would not say if he had specifically expressed that for the people of India. His cooperation with the US authorities was described by Theis as part of that remorse. However, he refrained from answering Headley's motivations in going to such lengths to cooperate with the authorities. It is possible that he would testify on behalf of the prosecution against Rana.
With the plea Headley has waived his right to a jury trial and essentially settled for sentencing. He potentially faces fines of up to three million dollars apart from a possible life in prison.