Judge Rethinks Death Penalty for Moussaoui
W A S H I N G T O N, July 12 — The federal judge presiding over the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, said she would consider the constitutionality of the federal death penalty act before deciding whether U.S. prosecutors can seek the death penalty.
District Judge Leonie Brinkema issued an order late on Thursday requiring federal prosecutors to file a brief by July 22 on the constitutionality of the Federal Death Penalty Act.
Her order came after Frank Dunham, the federal public defender assigned to Moussaoui's case but currently acting in a "standby" capacity, claimed that a recent Supreme Court ruling throws into question the constitutionality of the law.
Dunham was fired by Moussaoui, who says he wants nothing to do with his former counsel. But as standby attorney he filed a memorandum with the court this week to supplement previous documents opposing the government's plan to have Moussaoui executed if he is convicted of conspiring with the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Moussaoui was being held on immigration charges when the Sept. 11 hijacked aircraft attacks occurred. U.S. officials believe he was meant to be the 20th hijacker.
The 34-year-old French citizen of Moroccan descent has been charged with six counts of conspiring to carry out the attacks. Four of the charges carry the death penalty.
In the latest filing, Dunham argued that the federal death penalty is unconstitutional because it does not require a grand jury to include "aggravating factors" in its indictment.
He referred to a June 24 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled that only juries — not judges — can impose the death sentence. The justices declared unconstitutional capital sentencing schemes in five states.
Dunham said the ruling would also apply to federal law and said a grand jury must consider the death penalty issue in a case like Moussaoui's.
Brinkema, who had been expected to rule shortly on whether the government could seek the death penalty in the case, said she would hold off until she addressed the issue of whether the FDPA was constitutional.
She said the government and the defense had until July 22 to file documents on the issue.
Moussaoui, who is not a lawyer, has urged Brinkema not to accept any motion or memorandum filed by his former court-appointed defense team.
But when Brinkema ruled that Moussaoui was mentally competent to defend himself, she also ordered Dunham and a team of attorneys to remain as "standby" lawyers for legal consultation and to take over the case if necessary.
Earlier this week, Brinkema raised the possibility of revisiting Moussaoui's competency. In a separate order filed late on Thursday, she reappointed Edward MacMahon to the team of defense lawyers in an effort to ensure a fair trial.
She noted that it was "painfully obvious" that Moussaoui did not understand significant aspects of criminal law and said he needed help from qualified attorneys.
"The quantity and quality of the defendant's pleadings strongly reinforce our conclusion that standby counsel must remain in this case," she said.
Moussaoui has filed dozens of handwritten motions to the court. Most of them accuse Brinkema and the defense team of conspiring to kill him, while others claim the FBI had conducted an uncover surveillance operation of him and the 19 suspected hijackers.
The government has denied the accusations.
WTC Effort May End With Only 2,000 Victims Identified
N E W Y O R K, July 12 — The man who has led the groundbreaking work to identify remains of the World Trade Center dead has come to the grim realization that the effort could end with just 2,000 victims identified.
Of the 2,823 people believed killed in the terrorist attack, 1,229 victims — fewer than half — have been identified, 519 by DNA alone.
Dr. Robert Shaler, the city medical examiner's chief of forensic biology, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the ME's office will continue to exhaust forensic technology in an undertaking expected to last until the end of the year. But if the final number is 2,000, he said, "I think we'll have done a pretty good job."
"If we get that high —" Shaler said, hesitating — "I don't think I'll feel really, really glad, but I'll feel like we've done the best we can do."
Experts have said some victims probably were vaporized by crushing concrete or intense fires and would never be identified. City officials have hesitated to venture any estimates, for fear that victims' families might interpret any number as an endpoint where the work will stop.
For Shaler, who says he's "obsessed" with the task of identifying the dead, the only endpoint is when all available DNA technology has been tapped.
The ME's office has become the last wisp of hope for many families. The recovery effort ended last month at ground zero and, on Monday, the last bit of rubble will be sifted at a Staten Island landfill.
The medical examiner's office, which for 10 months has been conducting the largest forensic investigation in U.S. history, will bear the entire burden of returning loved ones to torn families.
Shaler manages about two dozen staffers who work full-time on trade center identification at the facility along Manhattan's East River.
Families regularly visit the operation, affecting the dynamic in the laboratory as well as the scientists themselves, who regularly deal with crime scenes and grisly evidence.
"Being in this profession and being involved in a laboratory isolates you from the real world, and I think you get hardened. You steel yourself against the emotional aspects of it," Shaler said. "That barrier has been broken down, and I'm much more emotional now."
Solving a scientific problem has never been so emotional, said Shaler, who meets families regularly at the office. They tour the facilities, usually peppering him with questions.
"He's been very direct, and up front," said Terry Strada, whose husband, Thomas Strada, has not been found. "He doesn't give you any false hope, but at the same time he says, 'If he's here, we'll find him.' "
Strada said she calls Shaler every few weeks to check on the progress. She recently visited the office, where she believes her husband's remains are among the thousands in cold storage.
"Getting close to these [relatives] is very difficult," Shaler said. "What it does, though, is it instills in you an obsession to help them. And I think that's what drives me now."
—The Associated Press
Report: Feds Scope Mosque Group for Al Qaeda Ties
S E A T T L E, July 12 — The FBI and a federal grand jury are investigating a group affiliated with a now-defunct local mosque for possible ties to the al Qaeda terror network, according to a published report today.
The Seattle Times, quoting law-enforcement sources it did not identify by name, said members of the group have ties to Egyptian-born Abu Hamza Al-Masri, who runs the Finsbury Park mosque in north London and is wanted in Yemen on terrorism charges.
He told The Associated Press in October that it would be a blessing if God destroyed the United States.
The newspaper reported that the investigation has focused on some members of the now-defunct Dar-us-Salaam mosque in Seattle's Central District. Federal agents have identified a half-dozen core members of the group but have gathered information on more than 100 others who had dealings with the mosque.
The Times said the group includes Semi Osman, of Tacoma, a British citizen and former preacher at the mosque. He is in custody after being indicted last month by a federal grand jury on a charge of fraudulently trying to gain citizenship through a sham marriage and a charge of possessing a semiautomatic handgun with a serial number removed.
At the time of Osman's indictment, Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Greenberg said prosecutors might ask for a sentence of as much as 25 years if Osman were convicted. That is a penalty used only for immigration violations committed to facilitate acts of international terrorism.
Osman's attorney, Robert Leen, acknowledged to the Times that his client has been pressured to cooperate in the larger Seattle investigation. Leen denies Osman is a terrorist.
The Times said federal investigators believe the Seattle group may have scouted a ranch near Bly, Ore., in the fall of 1999 as a possible site for a terrorist training camp. About 15 members of the group visited the southern Oregon ranch that year for target practice, sources told the newspaper. And two men from the Abu Hamza mosque later made a separate visit there.
The Dar-us-Salaam mosque closed after being damaged in the February 2001 earthquake. The Times said a rift had occurred between its radicals, most of them American-born, and its mainstream Muslim members, mostly foreign-born. The more mainstream African Muslims eventually broke away and opened another mosque.
The newspaper said Seattle police had been told at one point about a "large amount of weapons stored inside the mosque."
The newspaper's account comes amid other reports that some FBI agents are working closely with federal Treasury agents to conduct a more specialized search for U.S. residents who might be working in an advisory capacity to al Qaeda cells.
The AP reported Thursday that some intelligence officials estimate there may be as many as 5,000 people in the United States with some sort of connection to al Qaeda. That number, larger than other estimates, includes all those in the "realm of suspicion" and those who may know of terrorist activities but not participate in them, one official told the AP on condition of anonymity.
—The Associated Press
House Completes Work on Homeland Security Department
W A S H I N G T O N, July 12 — A dozen House committees have completed work on the new Homeland Security Department President Bush wants, leaving it to a special House panel to put together one bill that reconciles some major differences with the president on the future role of such agencies as the Coast Guard and the INS.
The House Government Reform Committee, working past midnight Thursday, was the last to approve its portion of the legislation that would combine some 100 agencies with security functions, comprising some 170,000 employees, under one federal roof.
Deviating from other committee decisions, Government Reform went along with the president in including the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Secret Service in the new department.
Retaining those agencies in the first new Cabinet department since Veterans Affairs in 1989, "is critical to the core mission and overall success of this new department," said committee Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind.
The focus now turns to the special panel headed by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, who must deal with the dozens of suggested revisions to the president's proposals and meld them into one package. He said today his panel intends to complete its work by the end of next week so the full House can vote on it the following week.
The Senate also must pass its version of the legislation. Senate leaders have said they intend to act this month, although Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., has objected to that fast pace.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said in a statement Thursday that attempts to block a vote on a measure with broad bipartisan support "would be a very unwise decision."
Four Cabinet secretaries appeared at the first hearing of Armey's special committee Thursday to stress the urgency of congressional action.
"We must be willing to make a dramatic transformation in light of the dramatic threats we face," said Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, accompanied by Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and Attorney General John Ashcroft.
But some House members from both parties said Bush's plan went too far and moved too fast.
The House Transportation Committee, responsible for 54 percent of the employees and 50 percent of the estimated $37 billion budget of the new department, defied Bush's plan Thursday in deciding to let the Transportation Department keep the Coast Guard and let the Federal Emergency Management Agency remain independent.
In both cases, the argument was the main functions of those Agencies — such as search-and-rescue and drug interdiction for the Coast Guard and FEMA's relief for natural disasters — would get secondary treatment in a department devoted to fighting terrorism.
House committees also rejected Bush's request for broad authority to transfer money within the new agency's budget without congressional approval; kept the bulk of animal and plant health inspection programs in the Agriculture Department; and made clear the Health and Human Services Department would maintain primary responsibility for health research.
— The Associated Press