Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Prosecutorial misconduct

The failure of the CIA to provide evidence requested by attorneys defending Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui last year should trouble Americans who believe in justice and respect for the laws of this country. As if it wasn't bad enough that our government has flouted the Constitution and held suspected terrorists for years without charges or access to lawyers, we learned Tuesday that the nation's top spy agency withheld evidence from Moussaoui's defense and even twice told judges that it didn't have the requested material. But it turns out the CIA actually did have three tape or video recordings of interrogations of "enemy combatants" that Moussaoui's defense had requested. Moussaoui was the so-called "20th hijacker" who was arrested while taking flying lessons less than a month before the Sept. 11 attacks. Of course, government prosecutors said they didn't know that the CIA had the material and, in fact, brought that fact to the court's attention as soon they found out. The prosecutors also said their failure to produce the evidence did not affect the outcome of the trial, in which Moussaoui pleaded guilty in exchange for life imprisonment after a jury could not agree on the death penalty. This could very well be true. But it seems strange that the government repeatedly screwed up the only prosecution arising from the Sept. 11 attacks. Of course, similar scenarios take place every day in courts across the country in cases which much less impact nationally. Prosecutors overreach, overstretched public defenders do the bare minimum for their poor clients. Sometimes the system works, but oftentimes it doesn't. That's why the death penalty, even "humane" lethal injection, has been suspended by the Supreme Court and why the government will be hard-pressed to get it reinstated.

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