By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 23, 2005
Zacarias Moussaoui pleaded guilty yesterday to taking part in a broad al Qaeda conspiracy that resulted in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, admitting that Osama bin Laden personally instructed him to fly an airplane into the White House.
In a hushed federal courtroom in Alexandria, the French citizen launched into the kind of heated monologue that has often marked his court appearances. He vehemently denied that he was planning to be one of the Sept. 11 hijackers and said his attack on the White House was to come later.
The balding, bearded Moussaoui, 36, dressed in a green Alexandria jail jumpsuit, blasted his attorneys, calling one of them a "Judas," and said he expects "no leniency from the American" when his case comes to the sentencing phase. As he was being led from the courtroom by a team of security officers, he shouted in a thick French accent, "Lord! God curse America!"
The guilty plea, while marking the first conviction in a U.S. case stemming from the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people, did little to bring the nation closer to understanding the worst terrorist strike on American soil. A court document Moussaoui signed said only that he had participated in a general al Qaeda plot to fly airplanes into U.S. buildings and that bin Laden approved Moussaoui's planned attack on the White House.
Yet Moussaoui's plea did much to resolve a case that has alternately fascinated and perplexed Americans since he became known as the man with the menacing look who sought flying lessons before Sept. 11 and did nothing while in custody to stop the attacks. Moussaoui was charged in December 2001, but his trial was delayed repeatedly by thorny legal issues. His decision to plead guilty, sources close to the case have said, came only in recent weeks.
The Bush administration hailed the plea as vindication of its decision to try Moussaoui in the criminal courts instead of before the military -- and to stick with the case through countless delays and appeals and a circuslike atmosphere caused by the defendant's courtroom outbursts.
"Moussaoui and his co-conspirators were responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents on September 11th, each one a son or daughter, father or mother, husband or wife," Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said. "We have acted fairly and patiently to bring Moussaoui to justice."
Yet the complications that have prolonged the case of Moussaoui -- who is still the only person charged in the United States in connection with the Sept. 11 plot -- are far from over. U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema in Alexandria is likely to set a death penalty trial at which a jury would decide whether Moussaoui should be executed. And Moussaoui, while indicating that he had initially asked for a sentence of death, yesterday vowed to fight to save his life.
"I have significantly changed my position following the advice I receive from you," he told Brinkema. "I will not apply for death. . . . No, Moussaoui will fight every inch against the death penalty."
His declaration set the stage for at least a partial airing of the terror attacks. Prosecutors have been planning to introduce testimony from family members of Sept. 11 victims at a sentencing trial.
Though Brinkema did not indicate yesterday how she will proceed, she asked attorneys in the case to come up with a briefing schedule for motions about the death penalty generally. Under federal law, there would be a sentencing trial unless Moussaoui and the government agreed to waive it. Sources close to the case said it was unlikely the government would agree to a waiver. Without a jury trial, Brinkema would decide whether Moussaoui is executed. But Brinkema has made several rulings indicating that she thinks execution is not appropriate in this case.
Brinkema said yesterday that the issue that stopped the case in its tracks for more than two years -- whether Moussaoui could gain access to top al Qaeda detainees -- is likely to emerge again at his death penalty trial.
Moussaoui's desire to interview the detainees, who he said could clear him, pitted his constitutional rights against the government's national security needs. Eventually, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond ruled that Moussaoui could not interview the captives.
But Brinkema said yesterday that the witness-access issue is "highly relevant to the sentencing phase" and constitutes "mitigating evidence" that could help spare Moussaoui's life. If she orders prosecutors to produce the detainees, as she did before, the government is almost certain to appeal.
"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."
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 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.