WASHINGTON - A US judge in the sentencing trial of September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui restored a major element in the government's case on Friday in a ruling that new witnesses could testify about aviation evidence.
The decision by US District Judge Leonie Brinkema was a boost to federal prosecutors who had said they did not know if it was worth continuing the trial without the aviation witnesses and evidence, since they represented such a major portion of their case.
Earlier this week, Brinkema had delivered a crippling blow to the government's only case involving the airliner hijackings that killed about 3000 people when she threw out the crucial aviation component.
Prosecutors had asked Brinkema to reconsider her decision to bar testimony from six witnesses who were improperly contacted by government lawyer Carla Martin and the aviation-related evidence that Martin might have handled.
Prosecutors said much of the aviation testimony was undisputed and they could find witnesses with whom Martin did not discuss trial proceedings. The aviation testimony affects about half the government's case against Moussaoui.
Moussaoui, an al Qaeda member who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the September 11 attacks, is on trial to see if he will be executed or get life in prison.
The aviation testimony was expected to deal with how much information the Federal Aviation Administration had about possible threats to airlines and also discuss pre-September 11 security measures.
In her ruling, Brinkema said the prosecution could call "untainted" aviation witnesses and produce "untainted physical evidence." But she gave limited parameters for the testimony.
In a court filing on Thursday, Moussaoui's lawyers said it would be difficult to find any witness who had not been following the recent events in the highly publicised trial.
"The existence of such a person is difficult, if not impossible to imagine and assurances that there is a rock at the FAA under which that person has been found should be greeted with the scepticism it plainly deserves," they wrote.
Prosecutors are trying to prove that if Moussaoui had not lied to the FBI when he was arrested three weeks before September 11, the attacks might have been thwarted in part due to heightened security efforts by the FAA.
Moussaoui, who was arrested after raising suspicions at a flight school, said he was not involved in the September 11 hijackings but was to take part in a second wave of attacks.
When he pleaded guilty, Moussaoui signed a statement of facts that said he knew of al Qaeda's plans to fly airplanes into buildings in the United States.
Brinkema said the new aviation witnesses can testify about what the US government "could" have done to prevent the attacks if Moussaoui had told the FBI the facts that he admitted when he pleaded guilty.
"The witness, or witnesses, may not, however, testify as to what the United States government 'would' have done with this information, as such testimony would be unduly speculative and misleading to the jury," Brinkema said.
The trial resumes on Monday.