ALEXANDRIA, Va. – A federal judge all but gutted the government’s death-penalty case against terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui on Tuesday by ruling that prosecutors cannot present any witnesses or evidence from aviation officials to show that the Sept. 11 attacks could have been stopped had Moussaoui cooperated with the FBI.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema stopped short of granting a defense request that the death penalty be dropped as possible punishment for the 37-year-old Frenchman. But she warned that allegations of government witness tampering have shaken her confidence that Moussaoui can receive a fair trial.
“I don’t think in the annals of criminal law that there has ever been a case with this many significant problems,” the judge said.
Prosecutors formally objected to her ruling, and the judge later recessed the trial until Monday to give the government time to consider an emergency appeal before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Moussaoui pleaded guilty last year to capital murder for having a role in the Sept. 11 conspiracy. The trial that began last week is to determine whether he should be sentenced to die or spend the rest of his life in prison.
Prosecutors argue that by failing to tell FBI agents about the Sept. 11 plot when he was arrested in mid-August 2001 in Minnesota, Moussaoui deprived the government of the chance to boost aviation security and to try to track down would-be hijackers to foil the terrorist attack.
The official at the center of the furor is Carla J. Martin who, until this weekend, was a senior Transportation Security Administration attorney.
At a hearing before the judge Tuesday, a half-dozen prospective FAA witnesses described how Martin repeatedly violated the judge’s written order against shaping witness testimony or allowing them to see transcripts of earlier trial sessions. They said she sent them copies of the prosecution’s opening statements in the trial and pointed out errors she thought made the FAA look less than diligent in the days before the Sept. 11 tragedy.
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