Judge Halts Terror Trial
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
A federal judge halted the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui yesterday and threatened to remove the death penalty as a possible sentence for the Sept. 11 conspirator after a veteran government aviation lawyer improperly shared testimony and communicated with witnesses.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, clearly exasperated by the new problems in the oft-delayed case, called the conduct of Carla J. Martin, a Transportation Security Administration lawyer, "the most egregious violation of the court's rules on witnesses" she had seen "in all the years I've been on the bench."
Even prosecutors were stunned by Martin's actions, calling them "reprehensible" in court papers and adding, "We frankly cannot fathom why she engaged in such conduct."
Martin violated a court order by e-mailing trial transcripts to seven witnesses -- all current and former federal aviation employees -- and coaching them on their upcoming testimony, court papers say. She also shared the e-mails among the witnesses.
Brinkema had ruled earlier that most witnesses could not attend or follow the trial and could not read transcripts. She told jurors yesterday that the ruling was "meant to prevent witnesses from comparing their testimony or listening to what other witnesses said and changing their own testimony."
The judge ordered a hearing today to find out how the incident happened. To sanction the government for the error, she could remove the death penalty, forbid the witnesses from testifying or declare a mistrial. The government could appeal either of the first two sanctions.
Further embarrassing the government, Martin's e-mails sharply criticized prosecutors' case, saying, among other things, that their opening statement "has created a credibility gap that the defense can drive a truck through."
Martin did not return calls to her home or office yesterday and did not answer the door at her apartment.
Moussaoui, 37, has pleaded guilty for conspiring with al-Qaeda in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Prosecutors in Alexandria are seeking his execution. If Brinkema were to forbid the death penalty, the case would end and Moussaoui would be sentenced to life in prison. It would be a huge setback for the government.
"This is the only opportunity for the government to make a Sept. 11 case. This is it. There isn't another," said Juliette Kayyem, a terrorism expert at Harvard University. "The government has to cross every t and dot every i to ensure that the Sept. 11 families finally have their day in court. If it gets messed up over a technicality . . . there is no excuse."
Duke University law professor Robert P. Mosteller said ethical restrictions against speaking with witnesses are drilled into every attorney. "Lawyers don't do things like this," he said. "The federal rule on witnesses is elegant in its simplicity, and it's usually not something people get wrong."
TSA officials referred calls to the Justice Department. Justice Department officials declined to comment.