Judge halts al Qaida trial over 'coaching'
Associated Press | March 13, 2006
By Michael J. Sniffen
An angry federal judge unexpectedly recessed the death penalty trial of confessed al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui to consider whether government violations of her rules against coaching witnesses should remove the death penalty as an option.
On Monday, the Minneapolis FBI agent who arrested confessed Moussaoui — perhaps the key witness in Moussaoui's death-penalty trial — was to be the featured witness.
Special Agent Harry Samit's testimony is equally important to prosecutors and the defense. Samit, who has already testified for the prosecution, faces cross-examination by the defense.
Prosecutors say Samit and the FBI would have foiled the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had Moussaoui confessed his membership in the al-Qaida terror network and his plans to hijack an airplane after he was arrested on Aug. 16, 2001, and interrogated by Samit.
The defense argues that Moussaoui's lies made no difference because Samit saw through them and was convinced that Moussaoui was a threat.
The agent moved heaven and earth to fully investigate Moussaoui despite his lies, the defense says, only to confront an indifferent FBI bureaucracy that missed numerous opportunities to foil the attacks.
Samit testified Friday for prosecutors that he was suspicious from the outset that Moussaoui, a 37-year-old Frenchman who had come to the Minneapolis suburbs for flight training on a commercial jet, was a radical Islamic fundamentalist with designs on hijacking an airliner.
But he said he would have been able to convince his FBI superiors to launch a full-scale investigation had Moussaoui admitted his al-Qaida membership. Instead, he said, Moussaoui sent federal agents on "wild goose chases."
Moussaoui is the only person charged in this country with the 9/11 attacks. He pleaded guilty in April 2005 to conspiring with al-Qaida to hijack planes and other crimes, but he denies any role in 9/11. He says he was training for a possible future attack.
To obtain the death penalty, prosecutors must first prove that Moussaoui's actions — specifically, his lies_ were directly responsible for at least one death on Sept. 11.
Last modified March 13, 2006