ALEXANDRIA, Virginia - A US judge today put the death penalty case against September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui on hold for two days, declaring angrily she found it very difficult to proceed since a government lawyer improperly shared information with witnesses.
"In all the years I've been on the bench, I've never seen such an egregious violation of the court's rule on witnesses," US District Judge Leonie Brinkema said.
Brinkema, visibly upset, said she had decided to put the trial on hold until at least Wednesday (Thursday NZT) because she needed more time to decide whether to dismiss the case.
The surprise development could derail the government's effort to put Moussaoui to death as the only person convicted in the United States in connection with the hijacked airliner attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
"This court is faced with a very serious taint of a key portion of this case," Brinkema said. "It is very difficult for this case to go forward."
Moussaoui, who has been admonished by the judge for his outbursts, yelled after court recessed, "The show must go on."
Brinkema delayed the week-old trial saying she did not want to "act precipitously" as she considered dismissing the government's request for a death sentence for Moussaoui, an admitted al Qaeda member who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy in connection with the September 11 attacks.
If she does dismiss the death penalty request, Moussaoui would receive a sentence of life in prison.
Brinkema gave few details to the 12 jurors and five alternates, saying only that a court order had been violated by a lawyer who works for the government but is not trying the case. She said neither the prosecution nor the defence was responsible and told the jury to reconvene on Wednesday.
Brinkema also called a hearing, without the jury, for Tuesday at which the government lawyer and witnesses she had contacted would be questioned to see if their testimony had been tainted.
In court without the jury present, Brinkema said the lawyer, Carla Martin, violated a court rule by sharing details of trial proceedings with potential witnesses.
Brinkema said Martin had "improper communications" with seven witnesses from the FAA - three who were to be called to testify by the government and four by the defence.
Martin works for the Transportation Security Administration and was helping the Federal Aviation Administration prepare FAA witnesses involved in the trial, prosecutors said.
Her emails, which were released by the court, showed that Martin sent potential witnesses transcripts of part of the trial and also coached them on how to handle certain questions related to aviation security.
Brinkema issued an order in February forbidding witnesses to follow trial proceedings or read transcripts.
Defence lawyer Edward MacMahon asked Brinkema to dismiss the death penalty option for Moussaoui since Martin had violated the court order.
"This is not going to be a fair trial," he said. "The proceedings just should be dismissed and Mr. Moussaoui sentenced to life in prison."
The defence requested a mistrial last week following an error by the government during the questioning of an FBI witness. Brinkema refused.
"This is the second significant error by the government affecting the constitutional rights of this defendant," Brinkema said. "It affects the integrity of the criminal justice system in this country, and in the context of a death case, I have to think very careful about this issue."