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Moussaoui agrees to plead guilty
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune


April 21, 2005

Washington - Self-proclaimed al Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui agreed in a closed court session Wednesday to plead guilty to capital conspiracy charges, and a federal judge found him mentally competent to do so.

Despite long-running questions about Moussaoui's mental stability, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema of Alexandria, Va., said in a brief, post-hearing order that he "is fully competent to plead guilty." She declined to disclose the basis for her conclusion.

Brinkema scheduled a public hearing Friday afternoon to accept Moussaoui's plea.

Prosecutors expect Moussaoui to admit to all six counts in the 3 1/2-year-old indictment, including four carrying possible death penalties, a government official said. The official said, however, that it's not fully clear which facts in the sweeping indictment he will acknowledge.

Some legal experts cautioned that, given Moussaoui's erratic behavior in the past, it would come as little surprise if he retreats at the last second from pleading guilty, as he did in 2002.

In the latest of a series of dramatic twists to the only U.S. prosecution stemming from the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, Moussaoui wrote to the judge and prosecutors earlier this month offering to plead guilty, people close to the case said.

He acted shortly after the Supreme Court ended a legal stalemate that had stalled the case for more than two years. The court's ruling, upholding an appeals court decision denying Moussaoui's demands to question al Qaeda captives held overseas, cleared the way for his trial to go forward.

Moussaoui's motives for wanting to plead guilty, over the objections of his court-appointed defense lawyers, were not immediately clear. A source close to the case said the 36-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent has expressed the mistaken belief that a guilty plea will earn him a quicker review before the U.S. Supreme Court. Legal experts wondered whether Moussaoui is suicidal or somehow hopes to "martyr" himself.

If he pleads, prosecutors could be at least partially stymied from using the trial as a forum to lay out evidence gathered in the FBI's massive Sept. 11 investigation, including calling witnesses who lost loved ones in the attacks.

"I think it's very strange, very unexpected that he's pleading guilty," said Robert Precht, a Michigan lawyer who represented the lead Muslim defendant in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. "Given all of the stuff that's been going on in this case, all of his changes of mind. . . . I would be surprised if he will go forward with this."

Moussaoui launched his 2002 attempted plea after firing his defense lawyers. Representing himself, he declared in open court that he wanted to plead guilty and said he had information about the Sept. 11 plot to share with prosecutors. A week later, he changed his mind after Brinkema told him he would be acknowledging a personal role in the suicide hijacking scheme.

Moussaoui has at least until now denied knowing anything about the Sept. 11 plan. On Friday, the government official said, prosecutors expect the judge to require Moussaoui to agree both in writing and in a court colloquy to certain facts spelling out his guilt.

Moussaoui was arrested on Aug. 16, 2001 _ 3 1/2 weeks before the attacks _ while learning to fly a 747 jumbo jet at a Minnesota flight school. He is charged with joining in an al Qaeda plot to hijack U.S. jetliners, ram them into buildings and maim and kill Americans.

If Moussaoui enters a plea, the judge would then have a couple of options. She could order a more extensive psychiatric examination to determine whether Moussaoui is mentally competent to be executed after being jailed in isolation since August 2001. Or she could schedule a jury trial to decide whether Moussaoui deserves the death penalty.

Brinkema could wind up deciding herself whether to impose a death sentence, but only if Moussaoui and prosecutors agreed to waive a jury trial. Prosecutors were described Wednesday as resolved to leave that issue to a jury, especially given that Brinkema at one point threw out the death penalty because Moussaoui was being denied access to the captives. An appeals court reversed that decision.

Under federal laws, Moussaoui could only receive a death penalty if he took an action that contributed to someone's death. If Moussaoui pleads and a jury is asked to decide his punishment, much of the case is expected to hinge on his knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot and whether he lied to federal agents who interviewed him after his arrest.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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