March 17, 2006

U.S. Lawyer in Terror Case Is Put on Leave


WASHINGTON, March 16 —The government lawyer whose improper coaching of witnesses and other actions have jeopardized the death penalty case against Zacarias Moussaoui has been forced to take a leave from the Transportation Security Administration, a department spokeswoman said Thursday.

The actions of the lawyer, Carla J. Martin may have wrecked the Justice Department's efforts to execute Mr. Moussaoui, the only person charged in a United States courtroom with responsibility for the deaths from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. She has not yet offered an explanation for her behavior, disclosed over the last few days, but her lawyer, in a statement Thursday, said, "Ms. Martin has now been vilified by assertions from the prosecution and assorted media pundits."

Her lawyer, Roscoe C. Howard Jr., said Ms. Martin was preparing a response.

"When her opportunity comes," Mr. Howard said, "her response will show a very different, full picture of her intentions, her conduct and her tireless dedication to a full trial."

The disclosure Monday that Ms. Martin had sent trial transcripts and e-mail messages to seven government aviation officials listed as witnesses with suggestions as to how they should testify threw the Moussaoui trial into confusion.

Judge Leonie M. Brinkema called it the worst case of a lawyer tampering with witnesses she had experienced on the bench. Judge Brinkema also said Ms. Martin had not told the truth when she told prosecutors that some of the government officials had refused to talk to Mr. Moussaoui's court-appointed lawyers.

The judge ruled Tuesday that the government would not be permitted to call any of the witnesses who might have been tainted by Ms. Martin's conduct.

Her ruling dealt a potentially crippling blow to the government's efforts to execute Mr. Moussaoui. Even though he was in jail at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, prosecutors have argued that he bears responsibility for the deaths that day because he lied to investigators who arrested him three weeks earlier.

Judge Brinkema recessed the trial until Monday, and the prosecution has asked her to reconsider her ruling, saying the sanction was excessive.

In a response Thursday, Mr. Moussaoui's lawyers reminded Judge Brinkema that courts were obliged to be especially sensitive to problems that might deny a fair trial to someone facing a death penalty.

Because Mr. Moussaoui has pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, the sole question is whether he will be executed or imprisoned for life.