Zacarias Moussaoui is scheduled to step into a federal courtroom in Alexandria tomorrow, stand before a judge and admit a role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, federal court officials and sources familiar with his case said yesterday.
The French citizen is expected to plead guilty to all six counts in the indictment charging him with conspiring with al Qaeda and the 19 hijackers in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people, the sources said. If he goes through with the plea, he would be the first person in a U.S. courtroom to acknowledge a role in the Sept. 11 plot. He has not entered into a plea agreement with prosecutors, who are expected to continue to seek the death penalty.
Zacarias Moussaoui still would face a trial to determine his sentence.
Tomorrow's hearing, announced yesterday by the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, came after Judge Leonie M. Brinkema met with Moussaoui and pronounced him mentally competent to enter the plea, according to court papers. His attorneys have been arguing that he is not competent, and they planned to file a motion with the judge today making that argument again, sources said.
The plea still could unravel, mainly because Moussaoui has been known to change his mind. He tried to plead guilty in 2002 but rescinded the plea a week later. "We have no way of knowing exactly what will happen. We've been through this once before," one law enforcement official said yesterday.
If Moussaoui follows through this time, it will bring a sudden end to a case that has bedeviled the legal system for the past three years but had recently seemed to be headed toward trial. A plea now could leave some large issues unresolved, most notably whether a terrorism suspect could get a truly fair trial.
The Moussaoui case was tied up for most of the past two years in the appellate courts over whether Moussaoui could gain access to top al Qaeda detainees, who he said could clear him. His request to interview the detainees pitted his Sixth Amendment rights against the government's national security needs.
"His plea is a victory for the government, but I don't think anybody would say the time it took and the judicial effort that went into this suggests it's going to be easy to bring terrorism cases involving al Qaeda in civilian courts," said Stephen Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University. "If this is the model, most people would say it's a disaster."
The witness access dispute also could come up again in what is expected to be the next phase of the case if Moussaoui pleads guilty: a trial at which jurors would determine only whether he should be executed.
Justice Department officials and attorneys for Moussaoui declined to comment.
The announcement of the plea hearing followed revelations that Moussaoui recently wrote letters to the government and to Brinkema saying he wanted to plead guilty and that he was willing to accept a death sentence.
In the flurry of activity that followed, there were no plea negotiations between Moussaoui and the government, and he has not agreed to provide information beyond the facts of his own case, sources said yesterday. "There is no bargain, no deal," said one law enforcement official. "It's a straight-up plea."
When Moussaoui tried to plead guilty in 2002, he claimed an intimate knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks. But when he reversed course a week later, he said that although he is an al Qaeda member, he had no advance knowledge of the hijackings.
It is unclear why Moussaoui, who was jailed in Minnesota on immigration charges during the attacks, might admit a role in them. Although he often has been referred to as the 20th hijacker, the government has never called him that in court papers. Al Qaeda detainees have differed on what role he was to have played, with one saying Moussaoui was part of a planned second wave of attacks and another saying he thought Moussaoui was to have participated in the hijackings.