In a stunning setback for the government's only criminal case from the Sept. 11 attacks, a federal judge on Thursday barred prosecutors from seeking the death penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui and prohibited any use of evidence linking him to the terrorist strike. U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema handed down the sanctions in response to the government's refusal to obey her orders granting Moussaoui access to three al-Qaida prisoners that he claimed would testify he was not involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. She rejected the more severe option of dismissing all charges, as the government, Moussaoui and his court-appointed lawyers had asked. The government did not contest a dismissal, but only because prosecutors believed that was the quickest route to intervention by a federal appeals court. The Justice Department (news - web sites) previously said it would appeal the dispute that has delayed a trial: whether Moussaoui, who says he's a follower of Osama bin Laden (news - web sites), should have access to al-Qaida captives who could help exonerate him or save him from execution. Moussaoui is accused of participating in a broad conspiracy to commit terrorism against the United States, a conspiracy that includes but is not limited to the Sept. 11 attacks. The defendant, a French citizen, has denied he was involved in the Sept. 11 planning and contended al-Qaida witnesses could back him up. The judge said in her ruling that Moussaoui deserved the chance to present that testimony. "That the United States has deprived Moussaoui of any opportunity to present critical testimony from the detainees at issue in defense of his life requires, as a sanction, the elimination of the death penalty as a possible sentence," she said. "The defendant remains exposed to possible sentences of life imprisonment." Brinkema said she barred any Sept. 11 evidence against the defendant because "it would simply be unfair to require Moussaoui to defend against such prejudicial accusations while being denied the ability to present testimony from witnesses who could assist him in contradicting those accusations." Brinkema postponed the effect of her ruling so the government could appeal. Two of the prisoners were among Osama bin Laden's top operatives, Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and a key planner of the attacks, Ramzi Binalshibh. The third is Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, a suspected paymaster for al-Qaida. Brinkema was responding to government defiance of her rulings in January and August, which granted Moussaoui the right to question the prisoners through a satellite connection. Their testimony also could have been used during his trial. Brinkema concluded that Moussaoui's constitutional right to potentially favorable witnesses took precedence over the government's need to protect classified information that could be revealed in testimony by the captives. Prosecutors had argued that national security would be gravely harmed if any details were revealed about the sensitive interrogations of the prisoners, who are held in undisclosed locations outside the United States. The Bush administration could decide to move Moussaoui's case to a military tribunal, where national security would likely trump a defendant's access to witnesses. However, that decision would likely be made only after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (news - web sites), in Richmond, Va. ruled on the witness-access issue. The side that loses in the appellate court could ask the Supreme Court to intervene. Prosecutors argued that interrupting their interrogations would be a sensitive matter for the United States, because intelligence officials are learning valuable information about al-Qaida's operations. Mohammed, for instance, told U.S. officials the Sept. 11 plot was five years in the making and that a wave of suicide attacks was supposed to follow, The Associated Press reported after reviewing interrogation reports. ---------------------------------- I hope someone shoots this guy if he ever steps foot outside a jail cell.