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Put Moussaoui’s trial on TV

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The journalist in me says, by all means, the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the first person indicted in the Sept. 11 attacks, should be aired on television.

His attorney says the trial in federal court should be televised to ensure the proceedings are fair. Other scholars say television cameras should be allowed in the courtroom so that the world can witness America's system of justice in action.

But this trial is not a garden-variety purse snatching. Putting Moussaoui on television elevates his status and the risk to government witnesses. Moussaoui has been charged with conspiring with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida to murder thousands of people. Four of the six charges carry a possible death sentence.

Television would give him a platform to promote his terrorist, anti-American views. Prosecutors say televising the trial could endanger witnesses and jurors, never mind turn the conspiracy trial into a veritable circus. Whether the trial becomes a spectacle will depend greatly on the judge and her ability to control her courtroom. As you will recall, that was largely the undoing of the O.J. Simpson trial.

Some have suggested splitting the baby by permitting only radio broadcast, which I find to be a laughable alternative. Unless you can see the defendants, witnesses, attorneys, judge and jurors, how can you ensure an accurate accounting of the proceedings? Sometimes a visual exchange between a witness and a defendant says more than their words. In the interest of good journalism, cameras seem a must in this case.

Yet, I fully appreciate the government's concerns. Moussaoui, the alleged 20th would-be hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks, has already demonstrated that he can be less than cooperative. At his recent arraignment, Moussaoui said only, "In the name of Allah, I do not have anything to plead." After his attorneys entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf, he remained seated while others in the courtroom stood as the judge left.

If Moussaoui's antics are too outrageous, he could be removed from the courtroom, permitted to view the proceedings through closed-circuit television and allowed an occasional conference with his attorneys. But, in some radical circles, that, too, could play into his attempts to portray himself as an al-Qaida martyr downtrodden by the American system of justice.

I'm getting way ahead of myself. I shouldn't judge Moussaoui by his previous behavior in court. It would, though, bode well for his defense if he conducted himself with dignity in future proceedings. Information in the charging documents suggest his attorneys already face a steep challenge.

Moussaoui was arrested and jailed on Aug. 17 after an instructor at the Pan Am Flying Academy in Eagan, Minn., called the FBI to report that a new foreign student was behaving suspiciously. Moussaoui had sought lessons on how to steer Boeing jumbo jets and to work the radio and flight computer, but expressed no interest in learning how to take off or land, according to the FBI. All this sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it?

For me, this issue turns on is what degree of publicity U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema is willing to permit. Video cameras or no, there is intense interest in this case. If people can't watch it on television, they will read about it in newspapers, on the Internet and follow broadcast reports. A reporter's interpretation of the events will not be the same as watching the trial for one's self, but it would be naive to think that blocking one avenue of access will eliminate concerns over witness intimidation and sensitive security information being made public at trial.

Because Moussaoui will be tried in open court, there's nothing to stop a member of the al-Qaida network from attending the trial. They no doubt will seek out every media account of the trial down to downloading transcripts from the Internet.

The bottom line is, an open society comes at a price. The judge from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing trial now has round-the-clock security. Some pundits believe witnesses in Moussaoui's conspiracy trial will likewise require lifetime protection.

While I respect the rationale of those who do not want Moussaoui's trial televised, I'm forced to weigh it against the opportunity to demonstrate American justice to the world. Where else would a foreign national be extended such legal protection in civilian court? There's no question in my mind that's worth showing off to the world.


Marjorie Cortez is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com .