Terrorism Trial Judge Will Brook No Nonsense

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The federal judge assigned to hear the government's case against Zacarias Moussaoui, the first individual to be charged directly in connection with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has a reputation for running a swift, efficient courtroom that favors neither the defense nor the prosecution.

Leonie M. Brinkema, appointed to the district court in Eastern Virginia by President Clinton in 1993, has had her share of reversals by the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. But many of them have come on sentencing issues, where the former federal prosecutor has shown an independent streak and has at times departed from the federal sentencing guidelines -- to the defendant's advantage in some cases and detriment in others.

The Moussaoui conspiracy trial, with four counts that carry the death penalty, will be the highest-profile case Brinkema has ever overseen, with accompanying concerns about the safety of some participants, managing media access and the likely need to keep certain evidence out of the public eye. But most lawyers who have dealt with Brinkema think she'll handle the potential spectacle well.

"She's a good choice," said Mark Hulkower, a former federal prosecutor who tried cases before her. "She's no-nonsense and evenhanded, and she knows how to move a trial." Former deputy attorney general Eric Holder added that "She's a very careful, thoughtful person who's not afraid to make a tough call."

Defense lawyers rose to Brinkema's defense when former Sen. Robert Dole, during his 1996 presidential campaign, labeled Brinkema and several other federal judges "soft on crime" at a time when Republicans were attacking individual judges for rulings they felt were too lenient. Dole focused on a case in which Brinkema reduced the sentence of a man she convicted for plotting to kill a former martial arts instructor. She rejected his insanity defense, but cited his diminished mental capacity in sentencing him to 21 months in prison rather than up to 9 years. The appeals court overturned the sentence.

In another case, Brinkema sentenced a man convicted of fraud for improperly collecting disability pay to home confinement rather than the prescribed 18-24 months behind bars. Again, the appellate court said she used faulty reasoning to depart from the sentencing guidelines.

On the other hand, Brinkema sentenced a Loudoun County doctor to 30 months in prison, 2 1/2 times what was called for in the guidelines, for performing examinations under the influence of painkillers he stole from his patients. She said the defendant, Joseph Shaw Jones, created a "significant risk of injury and harm to the public health."

And in a case that first focused national attention on the "road rage" phenomenon, Brinkema sentenced Narkey Keval Terry to a whopping 10 years, more than 3 times the recommended sentence, for his role in a 1996 highway showdown on the George Washington Memorial Parkway that killed three drivers. That sentence, for involuntary manslaughter, was also overturned, but the appeals court left open the possibility that Brinkema could find other grounds for such a harsh term. Which she did.

Twice in recent years Brinkema has struck down bars on access to Internet porn as First Amendment violations. In one case she nixed a Virginia county's ban on access to such material in its public libraries and in the other, she said that Virginia employees couldn't be barred from accessing porn sites on state-owned computers. Her decision in the state employees' case was overturned.

A 1976 graduate of Cornell University's law school who has also done graduate work in philosophy and library services, Brinkema — known to her friends as "Deedee" — hasn't handled many high-profile national security cases. But earlier this year she sentenced a former Australian intelligence agent to 15 years for attempted espionage. Jean-Philippe Wispelaere pleaded guilty to selling more than 900 classified U.S. documents for $120,000 to an FBI agent posing as a foreign spy.

Moussaoui, who made a brief court appearance Wednesday, will be arraigned Jan. 2 in Alexandria, Va. His attorneys did not request bail for him today. He's charged with conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, aircraft piracy, destruction of aircraft, use of weapons of mass destruction, murder of U.S. employees and destruction of U.S. property.

The indictment cites a number of parallels between his behavior in the months prior to Sept. 11 and that of the hijackers. Moussaoui was already in federal custody on that day after operators of a flight school alerted federal authorities to behavior they thought was suspicious. But there's no direct connection cited in the indictment between the French-Moroccan and any of the hijackers.