This article was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
WASHINGTON — A colonel in the Marine Corps was named Thursday to preside as the military judge in the long-running death penalty trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who are accused of plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The colonel, Stephen F. Keane, is currently serving as the circuit military judge at Camp Pendleton, Calif., the senior judge on the West Coast for the Marine Corps. Before that he was commanding officer of Security and Emergency Services at Camp Pendleton, responsible for the brig, firefighting and policing on the sprawling 125,000-acre installation with 38,000 residents and about 30,000 commuters.
The appointment by the chief of the military commissions judiciary, Col. Douglas K. Watkins of the Army, removes one obstacle to resuming pretrial hearings in the case that has largely been on hold throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
The previous judge, Col. W. Shane Cohen of the Air Force, abruptly said in March that he would quit the case to retire from the service over the summer, citing family reasons.
Colonel Cohen’s departure, coupled with coronavirus-related travel restrictions, disrupted a timetable of hearings and filing deadlines that he had set in the hopes of starting the trial at Guantánamo next year. Mr. Mohammed is accused of being the mastermind and the other four defendants are accused of selecting, training or helping with the travel and finances of the 19 men who hijacked commercial airplanes on Sept. 11, killing nearly 3,000 people in New York, in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.
No hearings in the case have been held at Guantánamo since February, in part because of a complicated two-week quarantine requirement for newcomers to the base to safeguard its 6,000 residents. (Forty of them are prisoners and 1,500 of them are soldiers assigned to the wartime prison.)
Prosecutors eager to resume the hearings have devised a skeletal plan to airlift 50 or more people to the court, including lawyers, translators, court reporters and the chief judge and his staff for 45 days, starting with the two-week quarantine.
Colonel Watkins, who had handled the Sept. 11 case on a caretaker basis, rejected the proposal for a session from September to October. It is likely to be up to Colonel Keane to decide whether to accept a new proposal from the prosecution to airlift the judge and lawyers to the base on Oct. 31 for two weeks of quarantine inside trailers at the war court complex, Camp Justice. Hearings that would run through the Thanksgiving holiday and end on Dec. 23 would follow.
At the military commissions, new judges are questioned by both defense and prosecution lawyers, who then get an opportunity to challenge a judge based on potential or actual conflicts of interest. Defense lawyers unsuccessfully sought to exclude an earlier Marine Corps judge who presided briefly in the case, Col. Keith A. Parrella, because he had completed a one-year fellowship as a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s national security division, which has two key prosecutors assigned to the Sept. 11 case at Guantánamo.
Colonel Keane also had the fellowship, more recently, in 2012 and 2013.
A military biography describes him as “raised in the Bronx, New York and Spring Heights, N.J.” He enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves in 1989 and then became an officer upon his graduation in 1994 from the University of Arizona.
He graduated in 2002 from William and Mary Law school, meaning he was a student at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Colonel Keane’s biography shows no experience as a defense lawyer but cites four different instances when he served as a Marine prosecutor, including during his law school summers at the Marine bases in Quantico, Va., and Camp Lejeune, N.C.
One of his best known cases involved the attempted prosecution in 2005 of a second lieutenant in the killing of two Iraqis near Mahmudiya. A major at the time, he was the lead prosecutor in a weeklong, high profile fact-finding hearing called an Article 32, after which the commanding general of the Second Marine division chose not to go forward with a full court-martial.
This is Colonel Keane’s second time as a Marine Corps judge. He did a three-year stint starting in 2009 as a major.