Judge Unexpectedly Halts Moussaoui Trial
Judge Unexpectedly Halts Moussaoui Trial
By MICHAEL J. SNIFFEN, Associated Press Writer 1 hour,
1 minute ago
ALEXANDRIA, Va. - An angry federal judge considered
Monday whether to dismiss the government's death
penalty case against confessed al-Qaida conspirator
Zacarias Moussaoui after a federal attorney coached
witnesses in violation of her rules.
"I do not want to act precipitously," U.S. District
Judge Leonie Brinkema said in scheduling a special
hearing on the case Tuesday, but she said that it was
"very difficult for this case to go forward."
Brinkema said a lawyer for the Transportation Security
Administration sent e-mail to seven Federal Aviation
Administration officials outlining the prosecution's
opening statements and providing commentary on
government witnesses from the first day of testimony.
That was in violation of her pretrial order barring
witnesses from exposure to any opening statements or
"An attorney for the TSA ... egregiously breached that
order," she told jurors before excusing them until
Wednesday. Of the seven, three were to testify for the
government and four were potential defense witnesses.
Government officials identified the attorney as Carla
Brinkema wanted to hear Tuesday from the seven and
from the attorney who contacted them to help her
decide whether to throw out the government's case. If
she does, Moussaoui would escape the possibility of
execution and be sentenced to life in prison without
chance of parole.
She said the rule against witnesses hearing testimony
in advance is "a very important protection of the
Moussaoui appeared bemused as the lawyers debated how
to proceed. Leaving the courtroom, he said, "The show
must go on."
The stunning development came at the opening of the
fifth day of the trial after the government informed
the judge and the defense over the weekend of the
"This is the second significant error by the
government affecting the constitutional rights of this
defendant and more importantly the integrity of the
criminal justice system of the United States in the
context of a death case," Brinkema told lawyers
outside the presence of the jury.
Defense attorney Edward MacMahon moved to have the
judge dismiss the death penalty as a possible outcome,
saying "this is not going to be a fair trial." In the
alternative, he said, at least she should excuse the
government's FAA witnesses from the case.
Prosecutor David Novak replied that removing the FAA
witnesses would "exclude half the government's case."
Novak suggested instead that the problem could be
fixed by a vigorous cross-examination by the defense.
But Brinkema said she would need time to study what to
"In all the years I've been on the bench, I have never
seen such an egregious violation of a rule on
witnesses," she said.
The defense did not move for a mistrial, which would
have restarted the proceedings.
Moussaoui is the only person charged in this country
with the 9/11 attacks. He pleaded guilty in April to
conspiring with al-Qaida to hijack planes and to other
crimes, but he denies any role in 9/11. He says he was
training for a possible future attack.
Brinkema noted that Thursday, Novak asked a question
that she ruled out of order after the defense said the
question should result in a mistrial. In that
question, Novak suggested that Moussaoui might have
had some responsibility to go back to the FBI, after
he got a lawyer, and then confess his terrorist ties.
Brinkema warned the government at that point that it
was treading on shaky legal ground because she knew of
no case where a failure to act resulted in a death
penalty as a matter of law.
Even prosecutor Novak conceded that the witness
coaching was "horrendously wrong."
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales declined comment on
MacMahon said the government had told the defense that
the TSA attorney had wanted the witnesses to be very
careful in discussing the FBI agent's acknowledgment
that the FBI knew long before Sept. 11, 2001, that
al-Qaida terrorists in the Philippines were working on
a plan to fly an airplane into CIA headquarters.
The federal attorney also apparently told the
witnesses erroneously, Novak said that the
government was planning to say that magnetometers at
airport check-ins are 100 percent effective.
Novak claimed there was no harm in that disclosure
because the government is not going to make that
Before the trial was recessed by Brinkema, the jury
was to hear from the Minneapolis FBI agent who
arrested Moussaoui perhaps the key witness in the
Special Agent Harry Samit's testimony is equally
important to prosecutors and the defense at
Moussaoui's sentencing trial. Samit, who has already
testified for the prosecution, faced
Prosecutors say Samit and the FBI would have foiled
the Sept. 11 attacks had Moussaoui confessed his
membership in the al-Qaida terror network and his
plans to hijack an airplane after he was arrested on
Aug. 16, 2001, and interrogated by Samit.
The defense argues Moussaoui's lies made no difference
because Samit saw through them and was convinced
Moussaoui was a threat.
Up to now the burden of proof was this: To obtain the
death penalty, prosecutors must first prove that
Moussaoui's actions specifically, his lies_ were
directly responsible for at least one death on Sept.
EDITOR'S NOTE: AP writer Matthew Barakat contributed
to this story.