U.S. lawyer exceeded role

TSA's Martin coached witnesses in Moussaoui death penalty trial

March 16, 2006|By RICHARD A. SERRANO AND JOHANNA NEUMAN | RICHARD A. SERRANO AND JOHANNA NEUMAN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- All week long, government lawyer Carla J. Martin badgered them. She sent 100-page court transcripts. She harried them with e-mail criticizing prosecutors and fretting about the government's image. She called them at home.

By Friday, Lynne Osmus had had enough. As a top security official at the Federal Aviation Administration, and soon to be a key prosecution witness in the death penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, she did not like being used to further the lawyer's interest in making the FAA look good over telling the truth in a capital murder case.

"I didn't want to have secret discussions with her," Osmus said.

Osmus showed the e-mail to prosecutors. On Monday, the judge postponed the trial. On Tuesday, the judge barred all testimony and evidence dealing with aviation security - the heart of the government's case. Yesterday, court transcripts of a conference call showed, prosecutors told the judge that unless her ruling is reversed they would have to abandon their effort to see Moussaoui executed.

"We don't know whether it's worth us proceeding at all, candidly, under the ruling you made," Robert Spencer, the prosecution team leader, told the judge. "Without some relief, frankly, I think that there's no point for us to go forward."

It would be a devastating defeat in a showcase trial that had been in the making since Sept. 11, 2001. The case against Moussaoui, 37, has lurched along, with battles over the death penalty, use of testimony from secret captives in the war on terror and the introduction of classified government material, while the defendant made repeated outbursts in court.

Its most bizarre moment came last April when Moussaoui, a Frenchman born of Moroccan parents, abruptly pleaded guilty to capital murder. He admitted that he was part of the Sept. 11 conspiracy but claimed that his mission was to fly a plane into the White House.

The government is determined to secure the death penalty in the only criminal case on U.S soil to emerge from the Sept. 11 attacks. Though Moussaoui was in jail at the time of the attacks, prosecutors advanced the theory that had he tipped off FBI agents, the government could have prevented the carnage.

`Lone miscreant'

That was the issue facing jurors when testimony began last week, a culmination of a yearslong, governmentwide effort. Scores of government agents and attorneys interviewed thousands of witnesses and pored over millions of documents, prosecutors recalled yesterday in pleading with the judge to reverse herself.

Martin, 51, a one-time airline attendant who found a second career as a lawyer, was one of those attorneys.

"In this sea of government attorneys and agents who have assiduously played by the rules, Ms. Martin stands as the lone miscreant," the prosecutors wrote.

Martin's first big case was the Lockerbie trial, in which the families of victims of the Libyan terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 sued the airline for negligence.

Her job then was to protect government secrets - information about airline security - from entering the trial's public record. By all accounts, she did her job zealously.

Moving from the FAA to the newly formed Transportation Security Administration, she did civil work and had little or no trial experience, former colleagues say.

"Her role was to make sure names, dates and places that would be dangerous if publicized were kept out of view," said James Kreindler, a New York lawyer who represented victims' families in the case. "For 13 weeks she was in the courtroom every day. Every so often she would ask the judge to please clear the courtroom."

In the Moussaoui trial, she was out of step with other government lawyers.

"Her role vis-a-vis the Moussaoui trial was as a traffic cop scheduling appearances," said Kreindler. "She's not a trial lawyer; her role was to get people there at the right time."

In February, she missed a key ruling by U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema. Martin was there when the order was discussed in court and should have known that the order was put in writing Feb. 22 and posted on the court's Web site. Witnesses were not to follow trial proceedings in the press or read trial transcripts before being called to testify.

For four days last week, prosecutors slowly began to roll out their case. FBI agents described Moussaoui's arrest and laid the groundwork for the trial's next phase. They would have TSA and FAA officials tell the jury that if Moussaoui had cooperated with the FBI, the government would have prevented the attacks.

But as the trial unfolded, Martin was operating out of sight of prosecutors - and sowing the seeds of a legal mess.

Osmus had put together a PowerPoint display for prosecutors. It was to show the jury the options the FAA would have had in late summer 2001 to try to stop an airplane hijacking. The measures included beefed-up airport security, the hunt for knives and box cutters carried by passengers, and the posting of suspected terrorists' names on watch lists.

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