The roots of the bungle seem to come down to this: Carla Martin, a government lawyer with a small role in the sentencing trial of confessed 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, thought the chief of the prosecution team was overplaying his hand. In his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Spencer argued that if Moussaoui had told the FBI what he knew about the 9/11 plot in advance, authorities "would have prevented" the hijackings and thousands of lives could have been saved. Martin, 51, a veteran in the aviation field, thought defense attorneys could "drive a truck" through that assertion, as she later e-mailed a scheduled witness in the case. Thus she took it upon herself to coach that witness and six other current or former government aviation experts scheduled to testify in ways to fend off the opposing lawyers.
While experienced litigators know how to prep witnesses without crafting their testimony, Martin crossed a line, informing her experts what she would tell the jury and feeding them transcripts from the trial in violation of an explicit order from U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema. It was no small mistake. When Brinkema found out, she angrily barred all aviation-security witnesses from testifying--experts prosecutors were counting on to make their case that had Moussaoui shared what he knew, officials could have prevented 9/11, and since he didn't, he should be executed.
How could such a high-profile case have been handled so sloppily? Certainly Martin, a lawyer for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), was never meant to be a player. In court documents filed after the blowup, prosecutors painted her as a misguided "miscreant" with only a bit part in the government's case preparation--arranging witness interviews and retrieving aviation documents for prosecutors. A former flight attendant who followed her father into law, Martin developed a reputation for tenaciousness both at the TSA and, before that, at the Federal Aviation Administration, where she started working even before she graduated from law school. But she did hardly any litigating in court. Her work was focused more on administrative matters. For instance, when sensitive aviation-security issues came up in the civil suit brought against Pan Am by families of those who died in the Flight 103 bombing, she advised the presiding judge on whether to clear the courtroom. When she started delving into criminal trial tactics, say colleagues, she was simply out of her element.
Martin's coaching of the Moussaoui witnesses was discovered when one of them became so put off by her persistent e-mails that she showed them to prosecutors, who then informed the judge of Martin's misconduct. "In all my years on the bench, I've never seen a more egregious violation of the rule about witnesses," Brinkema said. She warned Martin that she may face criminal charges. Martin, who has been placed on paid administrative leave by the TSA, wouldn't comment. Her mother, Jean Martin Lay, told TIME that her daughter is "really devastated" by the accusations. Martin's lawyer, Roscoe Howard, claims that prosecutors have unfairly "vilified" her and that her side of the story, which he says she is preparing, "will show a very different, full picture of her intentions."