Judge defends pretrial secrecy of 9/11 documents
By LARRY NEUMEISTER – 26. March 2009, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — A judge said Wednesday he favors keeping Sept. 11-related documents and interviews secret until the trials for several families of victims suing the airline industry, an opinion that upset several victims’ family members.
Donald Migliori, a lawyer for families of three people who died on hijacked planes in the 2001 attacks, asked U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein to make nearly a million pages of evidence and 200 depositions public, saying there was no reason for secrecy.
Hellerstein did not rule, but he said he favored not publically disclosing evidence that had been gathered and shared with lawyers for the victims under a confidentiality agreement until a trial occurs. No trial has yet been scheduled.
He said the confidentiality agreement speeded a pretrial process that enabled more than 90 families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to settle their cases. Only three families have not settled.
Michael Rowe Feagley, a lawyer for the aviation defendants, said it would not be fair to make all of the pretrial evidence public now, especially since defendants had turned over so much with the understanding that it would remain confidential before trial. He said it would take "extraordinary circumstances and an extreme need for it" to force its public release.
Mike Low, the father of a flight attendant who died on one of the hijacked planes, said afterwards that he was disappointed but not surprised by Hellerstein’s position.
Low sued in spring 2003 on behalf of his daughter, Sara Low, 28, a Boston-based flight attendant who died when American Airlines Flight 11 struck the World Trade Center.
"A few days after 9/11, a veil of secrecy came down. It’s still there," he said.
He said his main reason for not settling the case was because he wanted to make sure the public learned everything it could from the investigation of flaws in security that allowed 19 hijackers to board four planes. Two were flown into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and a fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
"I would go away if all the discovery and depositions that will tell us about the terrible failures and ineptitudes that led up to that day" were made public, he said.
He said he wanted to hold accountable "these people who allowed these 19 thugs on these airlines to murder my Sara and all the others."
Migliori said he will continue to try to force the public disclosure of the depositions and documents, though he would not say what step he would take next.
"I don’t know what the defendants are trying so hard to hide," he said.
Migliori said the public will be interested in the findings because the lawyers interviewed people no one else had spoken to and concentrated solely on how the 19 hijackers got on the planes.
He noted that Low had learned as a result of information gathered in response to his lawsuit that his daughter had acted heroically on her plane, passing along to another crew member with a phone the seat numbers of the hijackers, how they busted into the cabin and how one had claimed to be wired with a bomb.
"That’s not hero. That’s beyond hero," he said.