Accused "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab entered a Detroit courtroom under high security today and pleaded not guilty to charges that he tried to blow up a jetliner filled with Christmas travelers.
The short and slightly built suspect shuffled into the courtroom wearing an untucked white T-shirt and khaki pants and looking somewhat dazed with his eyes downcast.
It wasn't clear whether Abdulmutallab was shuffling sideways because of the fact that his ankles were shackled or because of burn injuries he may have suffered during the botched attempt to ignite a bomb in his underwear. Instead of exploding, the device caught fire.
During the brief five minute hearing, the 23-year-old Nigerian sat hunched over and impassive as his lawyers surrounded him and spoke with him. When called before the judge, he spoke so softly that federal Magistrate Judge Mark Randen had to urge him to speak up.
Standing slack-jawed, the suspect appeared to rely on his lawyers' promptings in answering the judge's questions. He could be heard answering "yes" when asked whether he understood the charges against him.
He lawyers did not ask for bail.
As the hearing was adjourned, Abdulmutallab looked around the courtroom before he was escorted out.
Outside the courtroom, Abdulmutallab's lawyer, Miriam Siefer, said he hobbled because of the ankle shackles. "Frankly all my clients move that way," she said.
The arraignment took place in a federal courthouse two days after afederal grand jury indicted Abdulmutallab on six charges, including an attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction -- a bomb concealed in his underwear. If convicted of the most serious crime, Abdulmutallab, who is 23, could be sentenced to life in prison.
The court appearance came a day after President Obama scolded his national security team for not recognizing warning signs that Abdulmutallab was a threat. The administration also released a declassified version of how the near disaster occurred.
Courthouse security was obvious in the hours before the arraignment. Abdulmutallab was brought to court in a small caravan of U.S. marshals that drove into an underground garage beneath the courthouse. Outside, metal barricades were erected and streets on two sides of the courthouse were blocked by police so no traffic could enter.
Two lawyers for Abdulmutallab's wealthy Nigerian family, one from Nigeria and one from the U.S., conferred briefly with his public defenders before the hearing began. Abdulmutallab's father, a prominent Nigerian banker, had tried to warned Nigerian and U.S. officials that he feared his son had come under the influence of jihadists.
Experts: Civil Courts May Best Handle Terror Trials
The suspect's arraignment triggered a fresh debate over whether Abdulmutallab and other accused terrorists should be tried in America's civil courts with rights to lawyers and other civil protections, or whether they should be relegated to military tribunals.
Judge Michael Mukasey, who was attorney general in President George W. Bush's administration, called the decision to try Abdulmutallab in criminal courts and give him the same rights as American citizens was a "missed opportunity" to get information about terrorists that could be acted upon.
"I think what should have happened is that Mr. Abdulmutallab should have been designated an
unlawful enemy combatant, turned over to the military and questioned for possible prosecution in a military tribunal," Mukasey told ABC's "World News."
"Intelligence is a very valuable but fleeting commodity. It has a very short shelf life. He had current information when he got off that plane, that information ceases to be current possibly within days… By the time a plea negotiation takes place his information is going to be close to worthless," he said.
Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani agreed that it was unwise to put the case in the criminal court system because as soon as Abdulmutallab was assigned a lawyer, questioning had to stop.
"Why would you stop it? There's no reason to stop it, particularly since the administration has created military courts," said Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor.
A criminal trial does not necessarily interfere with the collection of information and can have long term benefits.
"Trying him in a civilian instead of a military court in my view is basically a victory for the rule of law," said Alan Vinegrad, who is also a former New York federal prosecutor. "Basically in that way we are telling him and the world that even in prosecuting terrorists we are going to follow the rule of the law, we aren't going to advocate our principles just to reach the right result."
Vinegrad said a defense lawyer can even be helpful to the goverrnment.
"In the beginning a defense lawyer is probably going to tell their client not to talk until the defense lawyer knows what the case is about, but very often defense lawyers can be the instrument to bring about cooperation from their client which helps not only their client but also the government. That happens all the time," he said.
Former FBI agent and terrorism specialist Jack Cloonan agreed with Vinegrad.
"We've only had three military trials of terrorists, but since 9/11 we've had over 200 terrorists convicted in criminal court. We know this system has worked and been tested. Why roll the dice?" Cloonan told ABC News' Law and Justice Unit.
Those convictions include Richard Reid, the shoe bomber who tried to blow up a plane with explosives hidden in the soles of his shoes, and 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui.
Since he's only 23, Abdulmutallab may be willing to make a plea that would get him out of prison in about 20 years in exchange for information. "Once they cross that bridge, they can't shut up," said Cloonan.