Zacarias Moussaoui has notified the government that he intends to plead guilty to his alleged role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and could enter the plea as early as this week if a judge finds him mentally competent, sources familiar with the case said yesterday.
Moussaoui's plan to plead guilty comes over his attorneys' objections and still has several obstacles -- including Moussaoui's own whim. The French citizen, the only person charged in the United States in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, tried to plead guilty in 2002, claiming an intimate knowledge of the plane hijackings. But he rescinded his plea a week later. His mental state has been an issue in the case ever since, and U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema in Alexandria is scheduled to meet with Moussaoui this week to determine if he has the mental capacity to enter a plea now, the sources said.
Zacarias Moussaoui tried to plead guilty in 2002. His mental state has been an issue since then.
(Sherburne County, Minn., Sheriff's Office--AP)
In recent letters to the government and to Brinkema, Moussaoui said he is willing to accept the possibility of a death sentence, which sources said could resolve a key point of contention: Prosecutors are unlikely to drop their insistence on capital punishment. If Brinkema accepts a plea, she would then probably set a death penalty trial, at which jurors would decide if Moussaoui should be executed.
Moussaoui's renewed interest in a plea comes as the case, which has seen years of delays, seemed to be headed toward trial. Moussaoui was indicted in December 2001, but his trial has been delayed three times. For most of the past two years, the case has been tied up in the appellate courts in a dispute over Moussaoui's access to key al Qaeda witnesses.
Moussaoui's indictment has been hailed by the Bush administration as proof that the government could fight terror in criminal courtrooms, and his trial is seen as a possible airing of the evidence gathered relating to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. If Moussaoui were to plead guilty, much of that evidence might never be heard.
Although Moussaoui's antics have ranged from courtroom outbursts to blistering handwritten motions insulting everyone from Brinkema to his own attorneys, legal experts said there is a good chance the judge could find him competent to enter a plea. The legal standard, they said, is whether a defendant understands the charges against him as well as the consequences of a plea and can assist in his own defense.
"I don't think the guy is crazy,'' said Andrew McBride, a former federal prosecutor in Alexandria who has followed the case. "Certainly, his comments in court to date indicate that he doesn't think like us and has a certain hostility toward the United States. But he's a fairly erudite guy. He speaks Arabic, French, English fairly well. He is an educated man.''
Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor and former high-level Department of Justice official, said that Moussaoui "certainly has acted in a bizarre fashion that heads you in the direction of questioning his competence, but I think there is room here for a finding that he does understand what is going on and can make judgments on his own and is therefore competent.''
Federal prosecutors in Alexandria, a Justice Department spokesman and attorneys for Moussaoui would not comment, because the recent activity over a possible plea remains under court seal.
Moussaoui is charged with conspiring with al Qaeda in the Sept. 11 attacks. When he tried to plead guilty three years ago, he declared his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and said he had detailed knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot. But after Brinkema gave him a week to think about it, Moussaoui withdrew his plea and claimed that although he is an al Qaeda member, he had no advance knowledge of the hijackings.
Also in 2002, Moussaoui fired his attorneys and began representing himself. In his motions, Moussaoui insulted those lawyers, who were appointed standby counsel; taunted the Justice Department; and called Brinkema everything from a "death judge" to a would-be Nazi SS officer. Brinkema later restored Moussaoui's attorneys to the case, and they are now arguing that he is mentally incompetent to enter a plea, sources said.