ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Terrorism defendant Zacarias Moussaoui (search) will not go on trial anytime soon because of pretrial disputes over his access to Al Qaeda witnesses and his eligibility for the death penalty, a trial judge said Friday.
Prosecutors had asked that the trial begin May 31, the day after Memorial Day, but U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema (search) denied the request.
Moussaoui, the only U.S. defendant charged in the conspiracy that led to the Sept. 11 attacks, is being held at Alexandria's detention center in the Washington suburbs.
Brinkema said in a two-page order that intense pretrial work in her court, including the handling of classified information, cannot resume until Moussaoui has exhausted pretrial appeals.
Moussaoui was indicted in December 2001, charged with participating in an Al Qaeda conspiracy to commit terrorism and attack the United States. The conspiracy included the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks but was not limited to them, the government said.
Moussaoui has acknowledged his loyalty to Usama bin Laden but said he was not to be part of the Sept. 11 hijackings, and had been arrested for immigration violations a month before they occurred.
The court-appointed lawyers for the French citizen have informed Brinkema they will ask the Supreme Court for direct access to three Al Qaeda prisoners, two of them former high-ranking members of bin Laden's network who may help the defense.
The defense also wants the possibility of the death penalty eliminated.
"Until the Supreme Court has ruled on the petition, and on defendant's appeal if the petition is granted, this case will remain stayed to conserve limited resources of the judiciary and to minimize disclosure of classified information," Brinkema said in adopting the defense's position.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search), in Richmond, Va., has refused defense lawyers the right to directly question the prisoners, but instead ordered Brinkema to find acceptable ways to provide information from interrogation statements. The appellate court also kept the death penalty in the case.
Even after the Supreme Court resolves the pretrial issues, Brinkema said she would need to re-evaluate the handling of classified information. She said she would need more information about the conditions under which the interrogations were conducted and how the responses from numerous sessions were compiled.
She also noted that one appellate judge, Roger Gregory, raised strong constitutional concerns about the denial of Moussaoui's rights to question witnesses and questioned use of the death penalty.
Given the "strong dissent" of Gregory, the Supreme Court could grant the defense motion and hear arguments on the witness access and capital punishment issues, Brinkema said.