Q&A On The U.S. v. Moussaoui

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The indictment of Zacarias Moussaoui in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks raises a number of questions. Legal Consultant Andrew Cohen takes a look.

Q. Why did prosecutors choose to seek the indictment in the Eastern District of Virginia as opposed to the Southern District of New York?

Easy. First, Alexandria, Virginia, is a hop, skip and a jump from Washington, D.C. and the Justice Department, and there is no substitute for supervisors to be close to the action.

Legal Consultant
Andrew Cohen

Second, the federal court in Virginia operates on a "rocket docket" which is a cute way of saying that it doesn't take long for cases to go to trial once the defendant is arraigned. Clearly, prosecutors will be at an advantage if Moussaoui's attorneys are required to make their own investigation in order to prepare their defense in a short period of time.

Third, the feds chose Virginia over New York because the potential jury pool in and around Alexandria is much more conservative than the jury pool in and around New York City. That means that it is much more likely that jurors in Virginia would buy the government's case and then vote for the death penalty than their New York counterparts would be.

Since the government had a wide range of choices in which to bring this case, the venue the prosecutors chose is not a surprise at all.

Q. What happens next?

The next in-court step in the process is the arraignment, currently scheduled for just after the start of the new year. At that point, Moussaoui will be required to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty or no contest and the case will formally begin.

Before the arraignment, Moussaoui's legal team will be formed and will presumably begin to prepare his defense. The local rules that govern criminal trials in Alexandria mean that no federal trial judge will be selected until after the arraignment. Any in-court proceedings before then will be assigned randomly to the judges who normally preside over cases there.

CBS News has learned that Moussaoui's current defense team intends to seek the help and guidance of other defense attorneys who have handled high-profile terror trials in the past. So while there may not be an infamous "Dream Team" for Moussaoui, it is likely that he will be very well represented.

Q. When could the trial begin?

The earliest the trial could begin would be 70 days from the arraignment date or sometime in late March. That's part of the "rocket docket" rocess for the Eastern District Court in Virginia which is so attractive to federal prosecutors.

However, that quick timetable can be avoided if either of the parties convinces the judge that extraordinary circumstances exist which warrant a delay. Such a request is likely here by the defense, since Moussaoui's attorneys have to play catch-up very quickly to respond to the government's intense investigation into the defendant's alleged role in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Defense attorneys are likely to argue that the case is so complex and detailed that an extension of time is necessary in order to ensure Moussaoui's fair trial rights under the Constitution. If such a request is made, it is likely to be accepted by the judge. So it's reasonable to assume that the trial will begin sometime in 2002 but not necessarily in the first half of the year.

Q. What will the trial look like?

It is almost impossible now, before arraignment and pre-trial motions, to predict precisely what the trial will look like or how long it will take. Jury selection alone could take over one month, because each juror candidate likely will be questioned individually by prosecutors, defense attorneys and the judge.

The trial itself could last several weeks or even a few months, since the indictment seems to suggest that the case is complex and will take some time to explain in court and the defense case also may take some time.

In addition, if Moussaoui is convicted on any of the charges which raise the possibility of a death sentence, the trial would be extended for a penalty phase which takes place after the guilt/innocence verdict.

By Andrew Cohen
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