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US Prosecutors Prepare for Moussaoui Trial - 2001-12-14

Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys are busy preparing for the trial of alleged terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui expected to start early next year. Mr. Moussaoui was indicted this week by a federal grand jury in Virginia and is the first person formally accused of being part of the group that carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Mr. Moussaoui has been in U.S. custody on immigration charges since mid-August. But the lengthy indictment handed up this week alleges that his actions mirrored those of the 19 hijackers who crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11.

"The indictment issued today is a chronicle of evil, a carefully documented year by year, month by month, day by day account of a terrorist conspiracy that gathered both force and intensity in the week before September 11," said Attorney General John Ashcroft. "Zacarias Moussaoui is alleged to have been an active participant in this conspiracy alongside the 19 terrorists who carried it out."

The case will be tried in federal court in Virginia, just outside Washington. Legal analysts say one reason the government decided to try the case there instead of New York is because juries in northern Virginia are more likely to support the death penalty in a high profile case like this one.

Eric Holder is a former Deputy U.S. Attorney General and a former federal prosecutor. He told CBS that prosecutors may be threatening to seek the death penalty in Mr. Moussaoui's case in hopes of getting him to provide information about the conspiracy behind the attacks.

"Oh, I think you have got a case against him now that I think could convict him. On the other hand, I suspect this is also an attempt to get information from him," Mr. Holder said. "He now has the death penalty hanging over his head and the fact that he faces the death penalty perhaps will induce others to cooperate with the government so the case against Moussaoui and others could get stronger."

But top law enforcement officials say that, so far, Mr. Moussaoui has offered virtually no help in the investigation.

Robert Mueller is director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"At the point in time after he was arrested on INS [immigration] charges, we obtained no further information from him," he explained. "And consequently, while there was some information to follow up on, which we did follow up on, he was not cooperative at that time."

Whenever it begins, the Moussaoui trial is certain to draw intense media attention, and some analysts fear that the proceedings could take on a circus-like atmosphere.

One of the first steps will be picking a jury to sit in judgement of Mr. Moussaoui. Former prosecutor Eric Holder says that could prove very time consuming.

"Well, it will be difficult to pick a jury. Certainly, it is going to be difficult to find 12 people who will base their verdict only on the evidence and the testimony that they hear," he said. "I suspect you will probably have to question thousands of people in order to get down to 12. But I think ultimately that he will get a fair trial."

Some members of Congress are questioning why the Bush Administration did not seek a military tribunal to try Mr. Moussaoui. Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat who has been supportive of the war on terrorists, says the administration is taking "an enormous risk" by not trying him in a military tribunal where the rules tend to favor the prosecution.

A death sentence in the Moussaoui case could also strain U.S. relations with European allies and other countries that have joined the international coalition against terrorism. French officials said this week they oppose the death penalty for Mr. Moussaoui, who is a French national of Moroccan descent.