|Joined: 22 Feb 2006
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| U.S. Tries to Salvage Unraveling 9/11 Trial
| ||Prosecutors in Zacarias Moussaoui case ask that ban on aviation security witnesses be lifted, or 'there's no point for us to go forward.'
By Richard A. Serrano and Johanna Neuman, Times Staff Writers
March 16, 2006
WASHINGTON — All week long, government lawyer Carla J. Martin badgered them. She sent them 100-plus-page court transcripts. She harried them with e-mails criticizing prosecutors and fretting about the government's image. She called them at home.
By Friday, Lynne A. Osmus had had enough. As a top security official at the Federal Aviation Administration — and soon to be a key prosecution witness in the death penalty trial of admitted terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui — she did not like being used to further the lawyer's interest in making the FAA look good at the expense of telling the truth in a capital murder case.
Osmus showed the e-mails to prosecutors, to dramatic effect.
On Monday, the allegations of government witness tampering led the judge to postpone the trial. On Tuesday, the judge barred all testimony and evidence dealing with aviation security — the heart of the government's case.
On Wednesday, prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to reconsider her ruling. Transcripts of a conference call showed prosecutors told the judge that otherwise, they would have to abandon their quest to see Moussaoui executed.
"We don't know whether it's worth us proceeding at all, candidly, under the ruling you made," Assistant U.S. Atty. Robert A. Spencer, the prosecution team leader, told the judge. "Without some relief, frankly, I think that there's no point for us to go forward."
It would be a devastating defeat in a showcase trial that has been in the making since Sept. 11, 2001. The Moussaoui case has lurched chaotically along — with Olympian battles over the death penalty, the use of testimony from secret captives in the war on terrorism and the introduction of highly classified government material — while the emotional defendant made repeated outbursts in court.
Its most bizarre moment came in April, when Moussaoui, a 37-year-old French citizen of Moroccan descent, unexpectedly pleaded guilty to capital murder. He said he was part of the Sept. 11 conspiracy, and that his mission was to fly a plane into the White House.
The government was determined to secure the death penalty in what is the only criminal case on U.S. soil to have emerged from the Sept. 11 attacks. Although Moussaoui was in jail the day hijackers flew four airplanes into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing more than 3,000 people, prosecutors advanced the theory that had he tipped off FBI agents, the government would have prevented the carnage.
That was the issue facing jurors when testimony began last week in Moussaoui's sentencing trial, the culmination of a years-long, government-wide effort. Scores of government agents and attorneys had interviewed thousands of witnesses and pored over millions of documents, prosecutors recalled Wednesday in pleading with the judge to reverse herself.
One of those lawyers was Martin.
"In this sea of government attorneys and agents who have assiduously played by the rules, Ms. Martin stands as the lone miscreant," the prosecutors wrote.
Martin, 51, a onetime airline attendant who found a second career as a lawyer, had worked for the FAA since the early 1990s. Her first big case was the Lockerbie trial, in which the families of the victims in the Libyan terrorist explosion aboard Pan Am Flight 103 sued the airline for negligence.
Her job then was to protect government secrets — information about airline security — from entering the trial's public record. By all accounts, she did her job zealously.
"Her role was to make sure names, dates and places that would be dangerous if publicized were kept out of view," said James P. Kreindler, a New York lawyer who represented families in the case. "For 13 weeks, she was in the courtroom every day. Every so often she would ask the judge to please clear the courtroom."
Moving from the FAA to the newly formed Transportation Security Administration, Martin did civil work and had little or no trial experience, former colleagues said.
"She spent over a decade fiercely protecting from disclosure sensitive security information," said one former co-worker who spoke on condition of anonymity because, he said, he did not want to publicly criticize Martin. "That's her niche, to represent her agency, to shield their classified information. She served the niche well, but often at the expense of collegiality and professionalism."
In the Moussaoui case, Kreindler said, Martin's role "was as a traffic cop scheduling appearances. She's not a trial lawyer," he said. "Her role was to get people there at the right time."
In February, Brinkema issued an order mandating that witnesses were not to follow trial proceedings in the press or read trial transcripts before being called to testify. Martin was there when the order was discussed in court, the judge and prosecutors have said; it also was posted on the court's website.