"They could be back in the 4th Circuit before you even have the sentencing phase trial," said Peter White, a Washington lawyer and former federal prosecutor in Alexandria and the District.
Experts generally agreed that the case's long and tortured path had been worth the judicial effort. "It shows that the ordinary criminal justice system, though slow and unwieldy, eventually can secure convictions," said Mark A. Drumbl, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. "In the end, the system clumsily worked."
An artist's sketch shows Zacarias Moussaoui appearing before U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema.
(Shirly Shepard - Getty Images)
Moussaoui was arrested more than three weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, when his behavior aroused suspicion at a flight school in Minnesota. In the statement of facts he signed yesterday, Moussaoui admitted that he "lied to federal agents to allow his al Qaeda 'brothers' to go forward with the operation to fly planes into American buildings."
In 2002, the case was thrown into turmoil when Moussaoui fired his court-appointed attorneys, who were later restored to the case, and began firing off a long series of blistering, handwritten motions from jail that insulted the judge, the Justice Department and his lawyers.
But yesterday, some of that vitriol was gone.
"Mr. Moussaoui is an extremely intelligent man. He has, actually, a better understanding of the legal system than some lawyers I've seen in court," Brinkema said.
As soon as Moussaoui was led into the courtroom, Brinkema asked whether he still intended to plead guilty, and he responded, "Indeed."
Then, one by one, Moussaoui pleaded guilty to six conspiracy counts. Four of the counts carry a potential death sentence.
Some of the Sept. 11 families attended the proceeding and seemed pleased. "I'm elated. It's an ironclad plea," said Debra Burlingame of Westchester County, N.Y. Her brother, Charles Burlingame, was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.
Speaking of Moussaoui, she said: "It was strange hearing him talk about flying a plane into the White House in such a mundane manner."
Staff writer Steven Ginsberg contributed to this report.