WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court yesterday rejected terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui's attempt to directly question three Al Qaeda prisoners and cleared the way for a trial of the only US defendant charged in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks.
The ruling allows the government to proceed with plans to seek the death penalty if Moussaoui is convicted of participating in an Al Qaeda conspiracy that included the 2001 airplane hijackings.
The Justice Department said it would file a motion as early as today, suggesting a trial date in Alexandria, Va.
The government had told the nation's highest court that national security would be compromised if Moussaoui, an acknowledged Al Qaeda loyalist, was given access to Al Qaeda captives.
Moussaoui's lawyers had asserted that defendants have a constitutional right to witness statements that might exonerate them, and argued that if this right is taken away, the government should not be allowed to seek Moussaoui's execution.
Prosecutors, defense lawyers, and US District Judge Leonie Brinkema in Alexandria will have months of pretrial work ahead of them before Moussaoui could go on trial.
By turning down Moussaoui's attempt to directly confront witnesses who -- the defense suggests -- could exonerate him of any Sept. 11 involvement, the court will require the crafting of unclassified summaries from classified prisoner interrogation statements.
The US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit had directed the parties and the judge to agree on the summaries, and the latest decision means the appellate court decision will stand.
However, the 4th Circuit did allow the defense to propose language for the summaries, although the government could object to the proposals. Brinkema would have to resolve the disputes.
Moussaoui, a French citizen who was indicted in December 2001, has acknowledged his loyalty to Osama bin Laden but denies he was to have any role in the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
His court-appointed attorneys argued in written filings that forcing Moussaoui to rely on summaries violated his 6th Amendment right to a fair trial because the classified documents contain information ''from unnamed, unsworn government agents" who would provide incomplete accounts of witness statements.
The Bush administration countered that government attorneys were working to put together summaries under Brinkema's direction. An appeal challenging the death penalty and use of summaries would be more appropriate after trial, the government said.
Moussaoui asserts that the three prisoners could testify that he did not have a role in the Sept. 11 attacks. Two of the prisoners were key Al Qaeda leaders: Ramzi Binalshibh, the self-described planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the former Al Qaeda operations chief.