US judge delays Moussaoui death penalty trial

WASHINGTON - A federal judge delayed the sentencing trial of September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui by one month and ordered a two-stage process to determine whether he will receive the death penalty.

In rulings released by the court today, US District Judge Leonie Brinkema said the trial would begin February 6 and be split into two parts.

The first phase would be to determine whether Moussaoui, 37, intentionally lied to the FBI about his knowledge of the September 11, 2001, hijacked airline attacks.

If the jury determines that he did lie, resulting in the deaths of nearly 3000 people, then another phase would be held to see whether or not Moussaoui should be given the death penalty or life in prison.

In April, Moussaoui -- the only person charged in the United States in connection with the September 11 attacks -- pleaded guilty and said Osama bin Laden had picked him to fly a plane into the White House as part of a broader conspiracy.

Moussaoui pleaded guilty to all six counts of an indictment charging him with conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, commit aircraft piracy, destroy aircraft, use weapons of mass destruction, murder US employees and destroy property.

A jury will now determine his penalty.

Brinkema delayed jury selection by one month until February 6 and said opening statements would begin on March 6. Jury selection was originally scheduled to begin on January 9.

Brinkema said the request for a delay was made in a classified filing by Moussaoui's lawyers.

"Both parties rely upon the complex nature of the evidence, much of which is classified, the need to finalise substitutions for certain witnesses' testimony, and other logistical issues as legitimate bases for the requested extension," she wrote.

Moussaoui's trial had been delayed repeatedly for appeals over his access to al Qaeda detainees who he said could prove he was not involved in the September 11 attacks.

Defence lawyers have said it would be difficult for the government to prove that Moussaoui -- arrested in August 2001 after raising suspicions at a flight school in Minnesota -- could have told the FBI anything that would have prevented the attacks.

"Substantial evidence will be presented at trial that the United States government knew more about al Qaeda's plans to attack the United States than did Mr Moussaoui," his lawyers wrote in a recent court filing.

The filing said "there is no evidence in the record that Mr Moussaoui knew any of the actual September 11 hijackers by name, that they were in the United States or their locations".

Brinkema also ruled that the government may not include victim testimony and specific evidence concerning the details of the events of September 11 in the first phase of the trial.

Moussaoui's lawyers have argued that the evidence would have an emotional impact on the jurors.

The trial is being held just a few miles from the Pentagon, which was hit by a hijacked airplane on September 11.

Brinkema laid out an unusually long time to find jurors for the trial, predicting it would take a month to pick a jury of 12 people with six alternates from a initial pool of 500.

- REUTERS

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