Testimony from the barred witnesses was about half of the government's case.
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) -- The judge in the Zacarias Moussaoui trial dealt a serious blow to the government's death-penalty case Tuesday, barring roughly half of the prosecutors' key witnesses because a federal lawyer improperly coached several of them on their testimony.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema rejected a Moussaoui defense request that she go further and dismiss the government's death-penalty bid for the Al-Qaida conspirator outright. She put off resumption of the trial until Monday to give the government a chance to appeal.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said the ruling was being reviewed. While not addressing the likelihood of overturning it, she added that "it is important to remember" Moussaoui has pleaded guilty and at a minimum will be imprisoned for life with no chance of release.
Testimony from the barred witnesses was to make up about half of the government's case, prosecutors have said.
Brinkema imposed the sanctions after being informed that a lawyer in the federal Transportation Security Administration, Carla Martin, had urged seven witnesses from the Federal Aviation Administration to read trial transcripts and had prepared them for certain questions on cross-examination.
Federal rules of evidence prohibit witnesses from exposure to trial testimony because of the possibility they will alter their testimony based on what they learn. Brinkema detailed the rules in a pretrial order.
"I don't think in the annals of criminal law there has ever been a case with this many significant problems," Brinkema said after a daylong hearing revealed additional difficulties caused by Martin.
Moussaoui is the only person charged in this country in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He pleaded guilty in April to conspiring with Al-Qaida to hijack aircraft and other crimes, but he denies any involvement in 9/11, saying he was training for a possible future attack.
Life or death
The sentencing trial that began last week will determine Moussaoui's punishment: death or life in prison.
The aviation witnesses are key because, to obtain the death penalty, the government must prove that Moussaoui's actions resulted in at least one death on Sept. 11. The witnesses were expected to testify that they would have issued alerts and implemented security measures at airports if Moussaoui had revealed his Al-Qaida membership and the true intent of his flight training when he was arrested and interrogated by federal agents in August 2001.
Six witnesses who testified at Tuesday's hearing -- the jury was not present -- said Martin's exhortations would not have affected their testimony. But Brinkema said that wasn't clear.
"Whether the witnesses have actually been tainted or not is almost impossible to tell," Brinkema said. "There are a number of errors so serious that that portion of the government's case has been seriously eroded."
Martin had been expected to testify Tuesday, but she invoked her right to an attorney. That attorney, Roscoe Howard, later advised her not to testify.
On Monday Brinkema halted the trial after prosecutors revealed that Martin had been coaching seven witnesses -- all past and former employees of the FAA -- on what was happening at the trial and how to prepare for cross-examination. E-mails written by Martin suggest she believed prosecutors had overstated the FAA's ability to prevent the 9/11 attacks in their opening statement to the jury, and that the FAA witnesses had to be prepared for aggressive cross-examination as a result.
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