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Avoiding a Career-Ending Mistake: The Line Between Witness Preparation and Coaching

March 1, 2007
The Hennepin Lawyer
Author: Shannon Awsumb

In March 2006, Carla Martin was instantly transformed from an unknown government aviation attorney into a publicly reviled villain whose shocking misconduct threatened to derail the high-profile death penalty sentencing trial of confessed al-Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui—the only person to appear before a jury in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.  

What did Ms. Martin do that led a federal judge to conclude she had committed “egregious” errors that “irremediably contaminated” the Moussaoui trial and warranted serious sanctions?  To put it simply—Martin crossed the line separating acceptable witness preparation from improper witness coaching in violation of ethical rules and an explicit court order.  While many commentators have criticized Martin’s actions as unacceptable and unfathomable, others have recognized that instead of being vilified, Martin could have “achieved much of what she had set out to accomplish through more subtle, quite common and perfectly lawful techniques.”  This article examines Martin’s misconduct in the Moussaoui trial and discusses the ethical rules relevant to witness preparation. Read more.