Judge halts Moussaoui trial over prosecution 'misconduct'

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An angry federal judge today halted the trial of confessed al-Qa'ida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, calling an unexpected recessed to consider whether US government violations of her rules against coaching witnesses should remove the death penalty as an option.

The stunning development came at the opening of the fifth day of the trial. The Government had informed the judge and the defence over the weekend that a lawyer for the Federal Aviation Administration had coached four witnesses from the government agency in violation of the rule set by US District Judge Leonie Brinkema. The rule was that no witness should hear trial testimony in advance.

"This is the second significant error by the government affecting the constitutional rights of the defendant and the criminal justice system in this country in the context of a death case," Brinkema told lawyers in the case outside the presence of the jury.