Leonie Brinkema, Cornell J.D. '76, recently made headlines as the judge in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, who on May 4 was convicted of being an accomplice in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Brinkema's words to the defendant following the jury's verdict and prior to sentencing Moussaoui to life imprisonment not only earned her applause from many quarters ("Bravo, Brinkema," wrote the New York Post) but also seemed to capture the sentiments of the public at large.
After Moussaoui yelled, "America, you lost! ... I won!" Brinkema, who is a federal judge for the Eastern District of Virginia's district court, responded: "It's quite clear who won yesterday and who lost yesterday. ... You came here to be a martyr and to die in a big bang of glory. But to paraphrase the poet T.S. Eliot, you will die with a whimper."
While Brinkema cannot discuss the trial's outcome, she says: "I felt my response [to Moussaoui's post-verdict outburst] needed to be appropriate. This [verdict] was not a pat on the back or a victory for the defendant." She adds: "The lawyers [in the case] framed it appropriately. It's more about us and our legal system than about Moussaoui" and, as such, was "a great win for the American people."
Brinkema's call for an anonymous jury helped avert a media circus surrounding the trial. With an anonymous jury, jurors' names cannot appear in public records, nor can jurors be photographed or recognizably sketched for media use. Brinkema also ordered that the jurors be escorted to and from the trial. Those decisions were "a way to balance the media's First Amendment rights with the need to have an unobstructed trial [and to] give the jurors a comfort zone, without fear of reprisals," she says.
"I think she did a great job," says Cornell professor of law Valerie Hans, a jury-system expert. "She's largely responsible that the trial, which looked like it would skid to a halt multiple times, in fact proceeded to a conclusion."
The defendant seemed to agree. "I now see that it is possible that I can receive a fair trail even with Americans as jurors," wrote Moussaoui, in his post-verdict affidavit asking to change his guilty plea -- which Brinkema summarily denied while telling Moussaoui he had the right to appeal her decision.
"Her commanding presence belies her diminutive appearance," wrote Timothy Dwyer in The Washington Post. "She is maybe 5-foot, 2. With eyeglasses perched halfway down her nose ... she looks like ... an old-fashioned librarian."
Indeed, before pursuing her law degree at Cornell, Brinkema trained and worked as a reference librarian following graduate studies in philosophy at New York University and the University of Michigan, where she was both a Woodrow Wilson and Danforth fellow. But "it was the roaring '60s Vietnam era," and an academic career in philosophy seemed "too isolated from the real world," she says. However, the training in rigorous, logical thinking combined with library research skills turned out to be "a phenomenal background for legal work," says Brinkema. Being a fan of the "Perry Mason" television show as a girl sparked her earliest interest in criminal law.
At Cornell Brinkema studied under G. Robert Blakey, professor of criminal law and director of the Cornell Institute on Organized Crime; Kurt Hanslowe, labor law expert; and Robert Summers, a contract law specialist, who is still on the faculty. She was a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice criminal division; an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia's attorney's office; a private practice lawyer; and, from 1985 to 1993, a U.S. magistrate judge for the Eastern District of Virginia district court. In October 1993 she was appointed to her current position by then-President Bill Clinton.
"I've never been political, and I don't put labels on myself," she says, pointing out that she also was on President George W. Bush's short list for a federal judgeship.
Brinkema has been involved in cases as diverse as one involving a library's blocking of public access to certain Internet sites (she ruled in the public's favor) to one involving the National Cathedral, which sued for copyright infringement when a commercial film used one of its frescoes as a backdrop to a scene (she mediated a settlement).
"Every case has its own unique features. You've got to look at each one individually," Brinkema says. "That's what's so wonderful about being a trial judge."