WASHINGTON (AP) – A former flight attendant who finished law school at 36, Carla Martin seemed to be at a pinnacle of success when it all came crashing down this week.

She earned a six-figure salary. She traveled extensively. And she played an important role in a courtroom drama watched by millions around the globe: the death penalty case of confessed al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.

Then, suddenly, she was looking at the possibility of disbarment, a stiff fine, even prison.

“She’s really completely torn up,” said her mother, Jean Martin Lay. “How could it happen?”

In court on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said that Martin violated federal witness rules when she sent trial transcripts to seven aviation witnesses, coached them on how to deflect defense attacks and lied to defense lawyers to prevent them from interviewing witnesses they wanted to call.

Brinkema warned her that she could face civil or criminal charges and that she appeared to have violated rules of legal ethics.

Martin was assigned to be a government lawyer for the aviation witnesses called by both sides and to be a liaison between prosecutors and defense attorneys. Beyond that, she co-signed one government brief submitted in the case, attended closed hearings on classified documents and worked closely with prosecutors on preparing their exhibits.

On Thursday, Martin, 51, was placed on paid administrative leave from her job as a Transportation Security Administration attorney, where she earned about $120,000 a year.

Efforts to reach her for comment were unsuccessful, but her attorney, Roscoe Howard, said she was preparing a response.

“Only her accusers’ stories have been told, and those stories have been accepted as the whole truth,” Howard said Thursday. “They are not.”

Brinkema said that Martin’s actions and other government missteps had left the aviation evidence “irremediably contaminated,” and the judge has excluded about half of the prosecution’s case against Moussaoui.

Prospective trial witnesses described Martin as a zealous lawyer – perhaps too zealous.

“She was taking up quite a bit of our time,” said Claudio Manno, deputy assistant administrator for security at the Federal Aviation Administration. “Ms. Martin sometimes had a tendency to go off on tangents that, that really were not all that relevant.”

Lay said her daughter has always been conscientious and a hard worker. She had a flair for the dramatic and starred in a theater production as an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee, the mother said. “She decided she wasn’t good enough” for a career in the theater, Lay said.

Martin’s interest in travel led her to become a flight attendant at World Airways, a job she eventually discovered she didn’t much like, Lay said. She went on to law school at American University’s Washington College of Law and passed the Pennsylvania bar in 1990.

Even before she began to practice, she worked for the Federal Aviation Administration. There, her mother said, she was involved in two of the most prominent terrorist cases: the suit brought by the families of Pan Am Flight 103, which blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and the prosecution of shoe-bomber Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a jumbo jet over the Atlantic in December 2001.

Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Martin went to work for the newly formed Transportation Security Administration, where she’s been involved in the Moussaoui case.

Prosecutors now say their only hope of obtaining the death penalty for Moussaoui is to persuade the judge that she went too far in barring the prospective witnesses.

The only person charged in this country in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Moussaoui pleaded guilty in April to conspiring with al-Qaida to fly airplanes into U.S. buildings. But he denies any involvement in 9/11, saying he was training for a possible future attack.

The trial in Alexandria, Va., is to decide whether he is executed or spends life behind bars.

On the Net:

Transportation Security Administration: http://www.tsa.gov

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