The judge overseeing the case of Zacarias Moussaoui held a closed hearing yesterday to discuss details of a possible guilty plea from the only person charged in the United States in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, sources familiar with the case said.
The hearing before U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema in Alexandria covered some of the legal issues raised by Moussaoui's recent decision that he wants to plead guilty to his alleged role in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the sources said. Among those are whether he is mentally competent to enter a plea and whether he can do so over the objections of his attorneys.
Attorneys for Moussaoui and prosecutors attended the one-hour session on the seventh floor of the federal courthouse. Court security officers closed the hearing to others.
Brinkema is scheduled to meet with Moussaoui this week, sources have said. If she concludes that he is mentally competent and will not change his mind, she could schedule a plea hearing this week. Moussaoui has tried to plead guilty before, in 2002, claiming an intimate knowledge of the plane hijackings. But after Brinkema gave him a week to think about it, Moussaoui reversed course and rescinded his plea, claiming that although he is an al Qaeda member, he had no advance knowledge of the hijackings.
Moussaoui, a French citizen, was charged in December 2001 with conspiring with al Qaeda in the attacks. His trial has been delayed three times, and the case has been tied up in the appellate courts for most of the past two years over whether he can have access to top al Qaeda detainees.
In recent letters to the government and to Brinkema, Moussaoui indicated that he wants to plead guilty and is willing to accept the possibility of a death sentence. Sources said his apparent change of heart was motivated in part by his belief that pleading guilty would enable him to file a quicker appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Moussaoui's willingness to accept the possibility of a death sentence would resolve a key stumbling block, since prosecutors are unlikely to drop their insistence on capital punishment. If Brinkema accepts his plea, she would then probably set a death penalty trial, at which jurors would decide whether Moussaoui should be executed.
Attorneys for Moussaoui are objecting to his planned plea and are arguing that he is not mentally competent to enter it, sources familiar with the case have said.