Judge Halts Moussaoui Trial after TSA Leaks

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema ordered a halt to the death penalty case against confessed al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui while she considers whether to throw the case out entirely.

According to the AP report,

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 trial testimony. “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.

Quite bizarre. The leaks should certainly be cause for severe punishment of the perpetrators. It’s unclear from the early reports how much actual damage was done, let alone enough to dismiss the case with prejudice.

Interestingly, according to the WaPo report, the prosecution team discovered the lapse Friday and brought it to the judge’s attention. Given that doing so could only have negative consequences for their case, this is quite commendable indeed.

Update (3/14): AFP reports,

A US judge declined to dismiss the death penalty trial of September 11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui, but dealt a huge blow to the prosecution by throwing out key evidence. US District Judge Leonie Brinkema said the case could continue but dealt a stinging rebuke to the government, saying “I don’t think in the annals of criminal law there has ever been a case with as many significant problems.”

Brinkema’s ruling came after a controversy over apparent witness coaching by a government lawyer which the defense said prejudiced Moussaoui’s chances of a fair trial. She struck out all testimony from witnesses having to do with aviation issues, which the prosecution had said made up half of its case against Moussaoui.

A pretty harsh penalty but it was a pretty aggregious violation of her orders, too.

Via John Stevenson, who approves.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Terrorism, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. legion says:

    Well, presumably the judge wouldn’t have given such explicit directions unless there was a significant risk of compromising the testimony. And while bringing it up themselves may keep the prosecution’s case from being dismissed entirely, it shows a shocking lack of either professional competence or respect for a judge’s direct order which will seriously hurt the gov’t on this.

    I haven’t seen many occurrences like this, but if the remarks I’ve seen are an accurate account of the seriousness of the breach (as opposed to simple journalistic hyperbole), this could really screw the case.

  2. James Joyner says:

    legion: Could well be. My guess is that the TSA clowns went off on their own tangent thinking they were “helping” and the lawyers were aghast when they found out.

  3. DC Loser says:

    I’d have to agree with James here. If the TSA clowns indeed did this on their own, what kind of sanctions could be imposed on their professional credentials?

  4. Aubrey says:

    It will be interesting to find out whether the TSA lawyer was a member of the prosecution team or was sent as an observer for the TSA. The product that was distributed sounds more like an observer’s notes than a deliberate attempt to influence witnesses. It’s possible that an observer would not know about the pre-trial order.

  5. RA says:

    This is more judicial idiocy. These are the kind of judges the ACLU like. Find the bast### guilty and fry him.

  6. denise says:

    It’s quite possible the TSA lawyer didn’t know about the pretrial order. After all, wouldn’t you think if she did know, she would find some less traceable method than email to communicate to the witnesses?

    I’d like to hear from some criminal lawyers on this. Lawyers prep their witnesses all the time; it’s malpractice not to in most cases. Why in this case did the judge have an order disallowing that? Is this commonly disallowed for prosecution witnesses? I know criminal defense lawyers prep their witnesses.

  7. Ugh says:

    It’s a sentencing trial, the only issue is whether he gets death or life-in-prison, IIRC. Because the Supreme Court has mandated super-due process for the death penalty, this bar on coaching witnesses may have something to do with that.

  8. Yhoi says:

    This is more judicial idiocy. These are the kind of judges the ACLU like. Find the bast### guilty and fry him.

    RA- This doesn’t go far enough. We would be a lot better served if we did away with the judicial system as a whole. Rule of law is a quaint remnant of a pre-9/11 era. If we want to ensure that we are free, judges and the laws they interpret need to be discarded.

  9. G A Phillips says:

    Yhoi,its good to see a liberal finally type what they really want done with our judicial system, but why put 9/11 into it?

  10. Ray says:

    Yhoi,its good to see a liberal finally type what they really want done with our judicial system

    G A Phillips, don’t put your own sh@# on others, that was right wingers mantra about ‘judicial activism’ etc, not a liberal one.

    What about “coaching witnesses” — it is a regular practice to disallow witness’ access to the court materials to avoid from making biased testimony. In the same way as they lock out jury in high profile cases to avoid their exposure to outside influence. Any credible lawyer would know that and would not disseminate such information even if they did not specifically knew about particular judge’s order. The whole incident is a stark example of outrageous incompetence of the whole prosecution team there…

  11. DC Loser says:

    WaPo has details on the TSA lawyer in today’s paper. Apparently she attended all the trial and hearings. She’s supposedly an expert in terrorism, and knew very well the judge’s restrictions on coaching witnesses. Even her emails to witnesses cautioned them not to respond to her. I think she’s in a lot of deep shit.

  12. G A Phillips says:

    I was meagerly trying to point out the true anarchy that is woven into the heart and spirit of the liberal socialists and trying to be a “dumb ass” and entertain as I got my point across, so please slow your donkey roll.

  13. G A Phillips says:

    OH and Ray its kind of hard to defend someone with the don’t use the “Judicial activism” thing because its wrong, when said dude you are defending with it, has typed the following words in his statement(judges and the law they interpret)buddy.