March 21, 2005
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Monday rejected terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui’s attempt to directly question three al-Qaeda prisoners and cleared the way for a trial of the only U.S. defendant charged in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks.
The ruling allows the government to proceed with plans to seek the death penalty if Moussaoui is convicted of participating in an al-Qaeda conspiracy that included the 2001 airplane hijackings.
The Justice Department said it would file a motion as early as Tuesday, suggesting a trial date in Alexandria, Va.
The government had told the nation’s highest court that national security would be compromised if Moussaoui, an acknowledged al-Qaeda loyalist, was given access to al-Qaeda captives.
Moussaoui’s lawyers had asserted that defendants have a constitutional right to witness statements that might exonerate them, and argued that if this right is taken away, the government should not be allowed to seek Moussaoui’s execution.
Prosecutors, defense lawyers and U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema in Alexandria will have months of pretrial work ahead of them before Moussaoui could go on trial.
By turning down Moussaoui’s attempt to directly confront witnesses who — the defense believes — could exonerate him of any Sept. 11 involvement, the court will require the crafting of unclassified summaries from classified prisoner interrogation statements.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had directed the parties and the judge to agree on the summaries, and the latest decision means the appellate court decision will stand.
However, the 4th Circuit did allow the defense to propose language for the summaries, although the government could object to the proposals. Brinkema would have to resolve the disputes.
Stephen Jones, who was a lawyer for Oklahoma City bombing mastermind Timothy McVeigh, said, “The defense has every reason to press, press, press” for summaries that could aid Moussaoui. “That seems to be what they’re doing.”
Jones, who had to work with classified government information in the McVeigh case, said, “The issue will come over the content of the summaries, and how much the government wants to show the defense lawyers information that concerns sources and intelligence-gathering techniques.”
Jones added, “Fortunately for the defense, in the history of post-9/11, the Justice Department has stubbed its toe many times” in its handling of terrorism suspects.
Moussaoui, a French citizen who was indicted in December 2001, has acknowledged his loyalty to Osama bin Laden but denies he was to have any role in the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
His court-appointed attorneys argued in written filings that forcing Moussaoui to rely on summaries violated his 6th Amendment right to a fair trial because the classified documents contain information “from unnamed, unsworn government agents” who would provide incomplete accounts of witness statements.
The Bush administration countered that government attorneys were working to put together summaries under Brinkema’s direction. An appeal challenging the death penalty and use of summaries would be more appropriate after trial, the government said.
Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra, who said the government would soon propose a trial date, said the Supreme Court’s ruling “once again affirms our belief that the government can provide Zacarias Moussaoui with a fair trial while still protecting national security interests.”
Moussaoui attorney Frank Dunham Jr. said he would not comment.
Moussaoui asserts that the three prisoners could testify that he did not have a role in the Sept. 11 attacks. Two of the prisoners were key al-Qaeda leaders: Ramzi Binalshibh, the self-described planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the former al-Qaeda operations chief.
Moussaoui has acknowledged he was to take part of a later al-Qaeda operation. He was arrested on immigration violations in August 2001, before the attacks, when operators of a Minneapolis area flight school became suspicious of him.
The case is Moussaoui v. U.S., 04-8385.
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.