A federal judge has ordered a temporary halt in the sentencing trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States in connection with the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema has called for a recess in court proceedings aimed at deciding whether confessed al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui should face the death penalty, which is the sentence requested by the government. The other possibility is life in prison, without chance of parole.
Moussaoui last year pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, which killed nearly 3,000 people. At the time, he told the court he was involved in a planned attack on the White House.
Judge Brinkema said a federal lawyer violated a pretrial order that barred prosecutors from sharing information with witnesses. The judge called the violation "egregious," and added that it is "very difficult for this case to go forward."
The judge said this is the government's "second significant error" affecting Moussaoui's "constitutional rights," and said this affects the "integrity of the U.S. criminal justice system."
Defense lawyer Ed MacMahon said Moussaoui would not get a fair trial. He had asked the judge to dismiss the death penalty, and instead sentence the defendant to life in prison.
Reporters at the Justice Department asked U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about the case.
"I'm not going to speculate on what the judge may or may not do," he said. "And, given where we are in the state of this trial, it would be inappropriate for me to comment at all."
Outside the court room, Eddie Bracken, whose sister died in the 9/11 attacks, said he would be upset and disappointed at the process if Moussaoui is not sentenced to death.
"If we don't use him as an example, then there'll be another person stepping up and saying, 'you know what? I'll get away with it," he said.
He says the families of 9/11 victims are very interested in what happens to Moussaoui.
"He's the only one alive that we can get," Bracken said.
Judge Brinkema has several options. She could accept the defense motion to dismiss the government's bid for a death penalty. She could also let the trial continue, with some or none of the witnesses excluded. Or, if she declares a mistrial, the government could retry the case.
The judge is holding a special hearing Tuesday with the offending government lawyer and the witnesses he is accused of coaching. The Moussaoui sentencing trial, which started March 6, could resume as early as Wednesday.