NEW YORK — THE United States government has moved deeply into the evidence-producing phase in the third week of the World Trade Center bombing trial.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents are now telling the jurors how they moved into the rubble-filled garage, picked through the debris, and found pieces of a Ford van thought to be carrying the bomb. Prosecutors will then have to link the evidence to a van rented to the defendants.
Although the process is tedious, the federal prosecutor in the case, Assistant US Attorney J. Gilmore Childers, is beginning to portray a powerful blast pattern, which threw vehicle pieces through the bomb crater like rocks during the eruption of a volcano. As each piece of shrapnel is introduced, FBI agents mark its location on a large map covered with sheets of clear plastic representing each of the floors damaged by the Feb. 26 blast. Jurors don work gloves and pass the pieces around.
Some of the parts, such as a compressor presented into evidence on Oct. 19, are still identifiable and marked with the Ford oval. Other parts, however, look like free-form sculpture. On Tuesday, an FBI agent identified some of the parts as identical to those used in a yellow Ford van rented from a Jersey City, N.J., Ryder truck rental location.
The reconstruction of the vehicle is a crucial part of the prosecution's case, which will be based mostly on circumstantial evidence. No one has testified yet that any of the four defendants drove the bomb-laden truck into the underground garage of the 110-story Twin Towers. However, one of the defendants, Mohammed Salameh, rented the van and later reported it stolen. He was arrested when he tried to get back his deposit. The other defendants are Mahmud Abouhalima, Nidal Ayyad, and Ahmad Mohammad Ajaj.
The defense lawyers have been aggressive in challenging the FBI and its work. On Tuesday, defense lawyer Austin Campriello asked FBI agent Thomas Mohnel if the FBI has sophisticated equipment. Mr. Mohnel answered in the affirmative.
Mr. Campriello then wanted to know if the agent had used a tape measure to mark where he found a wheel hub. No, answered Mohnel. Campriello asked if the jury should know the exact location. No, answered the agent as Campriello rolled his eyes.
On Monday, defense lawyer Hassen Ibn Abdellah found that an FBI agent had signed a form indicating the agent had found a piece of metal. A different agent had actually discovered the metal object and brought it to the first agent, a team leader. ``You didn't discover anything, is that right?'' he asked, trying to show sloppy bookkeeping by the bureau.
LATER outside the courtroom, Mr. Hassen complained that the prosecution was only showing a small percentage of the evidence unearthed in the rubble. ``We're concerned that the jury is getting a tunnel vision view,'' he said.
The fact that the defense attorneys were giving interviews and interpretations of the trial has caused the government to complain on Oct. 19 to the trial judge, Kevin Duffy. ``Defense counsels' comments can be heard on television and the radio every night and morning, and seen in the newspapers every day,'' wrote US Attorney Mary Jo White. It is unclear what, if anything, Judge Duffy can do. His attempt to place a gag order on all the lawyers and government officials involved in the case was rejected by the Court of Appeals.
The evidence part of the trial follows the first two weeks of testimony which centered on the terror that resulted from the blast. People who worked in the Twin Towers gave emotional testimony about their experiences.
In the next several weeks, the government will begin to try to link the evidence directly to the rented van. So far, there has been no sign that the FBI was able to find traces of explosive chemicals on any of the metal parts. The government will need to explain why this blast left no such chemical clues.