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Judge accepts compromise

| Saturday, March 18, 2006

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - The federal judge in the death penalty trial of al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui accepted a government compromise Friday that will allow prosecutors to present new witnesses about aviation security.

Judge Leonie Brinkema in a written order said prosecutors could present exhibits and a witness or witnesses if they are untainted by contact with Transportation Security Administration lawyer Carla J. Martin, cited by Brinkema for misconduct earlier this week when the judge decided to exclude all aviation security evidence.

"The government's proposed alternative remedy of allowing it to call untainted aviation witnesses or otherwise produce evidence not tainted by Ms. Martin has merit," Brinkema wrote.

Her partial reversal of an earlier order was a boon to prosecutors who had said it would be a waste of time to continue the case if they were not allowed to present some evidence about possible defensive aviation security measures the government might have taken to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos signaled that the prosecution was prepared to resume its case on Monday. "We're pleased to be able to move forward with this important case on behalf of the thousands of victims and their families," Scolinos said.

Defense lawyers had argued Thursday that Brinkema was fully justified in concluding that evidence about U.S. aviation security was tainted beyond repair.

Moussaoui's lawyers also had said that there was no reason for her to agree to a request by prosecutors on Wednesday that she revoke her order or at least impose less severe penalties on the government.

Brinkema has sent the jury home until Monday while she decides what to do.

The only person charged in this country in the Sept. 11 attacks, Moussaoui pleaded guilty in April to conspiring with al-Qaida. But he says he had nothing to do with 9/11 and was training for a possible later attack.

To obtain a death penalty, prosecutors must prove that Moussaoui's actions -- his lies, in this case -- led directly to at least one death on Sept. 11, 2001.

Martin's lawyer, Roscoe Howard, said Thursday she had been "viciously vilified by assertions from the prosecution" and is preparing a response he said "will show a very different, full picture of her intentions, her conduct and her tireless dedication to a fair trial."

Meanwhile, in New York, lawyers representing plaintiffs in a liability lawsuit stemming from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have asked a judge there to conduct an inquiry into whether Martin, or any other TSA lawyers, engaged in witness tampering or other acts to favor American Airlines and United Airlines, defendants in the case.

"We are particularly concerned that TSA may not have acted with the total impartiality required of that Agency in decisions it has made that affect our cases," lawyers Marc S. Moller and Beth E. Goldman wrote in a letter to U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein, who is overseeing the civil lawsuit over property damages that resulted from the terrorist attacks.

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