A Mix of Ordinary, Drama at Courthouse
Saturday, April 23, 2005
Near the soaring figure of blind Justice, her arms reaching out toward rows of television vans and satellite dishes, a nuclear materials detector had been installed yesterday at the federal courthouse in Alexandria -- a white arch fitted with a black box and wires.
Four security officers talked about paychecks and overtime as people blipped through the arch in suits and dresses, passing purses and briefcases through the metal detector.
On the day that Zacarias Moussaoui became the only person convicted in the United States in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there was an air of danger here and there. But in many ways, the normal rhythms of U.S. District Court beat on as if nothing momentous was happening.
Lawyers sat on dark, wood benches in the hallways and scribbled notes. People milled about -- workers, security guards, jurors, mostly people who'd be around any other day. Two black, bomb-sniffing dogs gamboled on the grass in a courtyard as their keepers looked on.
The seventh floor, where Moussaoui was about to plead guilty, was sealed until about 1:30 p.m., when four elevators opened almost at once and dozens of reporters and a few court buffs seemed to materialize out of nowhere.
"I just want to see him face-on," Arnold Ostrolenk, 69, who lives across the street from the courthouse, said of Moussaoui.
It was quiet inside Courtroom 700, all wood paneling and blue carpet with white half-globe lights hanging from the high ceiling. A few family members of Sept. 11 victims -- eight had reserved seats -- were escorted in and took their places on the second row.
Hamilton Peterson, whose father, Donald A. Peterson, and stepmother, Jean Peterson, died on hijacked Flight 93, was among them. He leaned back and said to reporters that he was there to thank the prosecutors and "to see raw evil."
Prosecutors and defense lawyers took their seats on the first bench. The rumble of voices lowered to a whisper, then nothing but breathing. As the courtroom clock hit 3:30 p.m., Peterson got his wish when a man in a green jumpsuit with a scraggly beard, a half bald head and large, roving eyes walked in.
Moussaoui, looking nothing like his ubiquitous prison photo, took a seat, then walked to the podium to answer the judge's queries.
"You understand that all answers to this court's questions must be truthful?" U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema began, the first of many questions in one of the most extraordinary pleas in U.S. history. "It is understood," Moussaoui said in a thick French accent.
"You are aware that the first four counts essentially expose you to the possibility of a death sentence . . . ?" Brinkema asked.
"Yes, I read the document."
"Now, you do understand that you have the right to plead not guilty . . . ?" the judge asked.
"I do understand that," Moussaoui said, and on it went, questions as mundane as whether Moussaoui understood that he would be fined $600, and as grave as whether he was part of a terrorist conspiracy to attack the United States. At one point, Moussaoui said he planned to fly a 747 into the White House one day.
The dialogue between the two swung from cordial to combative to darkly humorous. Brinkema asked if Moussaoui understood that he was not giving up certain rights in the sentencing phase by pleading guilty. "That's what I'm saying," Moussaoui said. "That's what I'm saying, too," Brinkema said. Some people in the courtroom laughed.
At 3:50 p.m., Moussaoui began signing the documents that made formal his guilty plea. Peterson leaned in closer to see.
Then Brinkema began reading the six counts in the indictment, asking Moussaoui after each how he pleaded. "Guilty," he said over and over. "Guilty."
After making a byzantine argument about his case -- he cited Supreme Court cases, legal loopholes and mitigating factors -- Moussaoui was led from the courtroom. He raised one hand and shouted, "Lord! God curse America!"