Moussaoui Fails in Bid to Withdraw 9/11 Guilty Plea

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Facing transfer to the nation's toughest federal prison, Zacarias Moussaoui served up what may be his final legal surprise yesterday: The al-Qaeda conspirator said he was not involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror plot after all and wants a new trial to prove it.

His efforts were immediately rejected by a federal judge.

In a motion in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Moussaoui sought to withdraw his guilty plea and be granted a new trial "to prove my innocence of the Sept. 11 plot.'' The filing came four days after he was sentenced to life in prison, a punishment determined by a jury that heard Moussaoui testify during a seven-week sentencing trial that he had planned to fly a fifth hijacked airplane into the White House on Sept. 11.

Now, the French citizen says that testimony was "a complete fabrication.'' In an affidavit accompanying the motion, Moussaoui said he never met lead hijacker Mohamed Atta, didn't know the other 18 hijackers "or anything about their operation" and was taking flying lessons in the United States only to train for a second wave of attacks.

He also offered measured praise for the U.S. legal system he has spent the past four years attacking. Moussaoui said he lied on the stand because he assumed he would be executed "based on the emotions and anger toward me for the deaths on Sept. 11.'' But he was "extremely surprised" at the jury's verdict, he said, and now believes "it is possible I can receive a fair trial even with Americans as jurors.''

U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema summarily rejected Moussaoui's motion late yesterday, saying federal rules prohibit a defendant from withdrawing a guilty plea after being sentenced. "Because defendant was sentenced on May 4, 2006, his motion is too late and must be denied on this basis alone,'' Brinkema wrote.

Moussaoui can appeal her ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, but legal experts said such appeals are rarely granted and would probably require a grievous legal error by the judge.

"His chances are zilch,'' said Victoria Toensing, a Washington lawyer who was head of counter-terrorism for the Justice Department in the Reagan administration. She said Moussaoui fatally undermined his argument by writing that he was telling the truth when he pleaded guilty last year and said his attack was to come after Sept. 11. "He was telling the truth for the plea, so it's no issue,'' she said. "The plea is good.''

Even Moussaoui's attorneys acknowledged in a footnote yesterday that their motion could not be granted under federal rules, but they said they were filing it anyway "given their problematic relationship with Moussaoui."

Moussaoui is not the first terrorism defendant sentenced in the Alexandria federal courthouse to attempt the maneuver. In 2003, Ohio truck driver Iyman Faris tried to take back his guilty plea for plotting with al-Qaeda to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge and launch a simultaneous attack in Washington.

Brinkema, also the judge in that case, refused and told Faris: "Any defendant who has no significant mental problems . . . who stood in this court, took an oath to tell the truth and gave consistent answers to questions the way this defendant did can't walk back into this court and say it was all a bunch of lies."

Yesterday's motion was another twist in the case of Moussaoui, the only person convicted in the United States in connection with the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Moussaoui, 37, pleaded guilty last year to taking part in a broad al-Qaeda conspiracy to crash planes into U.S. buildings that led to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Under federal conspiracy law, "it doesn't matter whether he was involved in Sept. 11,'' Toensing said. "He didn't have to know the exact date, time or method."

After the sentencing trial, a federal jury rejected the government's attempt to secure Moussaoui's execution and decided last week that he should receive life in prison. Brinkema imposed that sentence Thursday.

Moussaoui is likely to be transferred within days to the federal penitentiary in Florence, Colo., known as the "Alcatraz of the Rockies" or simply as "The Tombs." Once there, he probably will spend up to 23 hours a day in a soundproof, concrete cell, cut off from contact with anyone other than his guards.

In his affidavit yesterday, Moussaoui said the solitary confinement at the Alexandria jail "made me hostile toward everyone."

Moussaoui, who was sitting in jail Sept. 11 because he had been arrested on immigration charges a month earlier, has given shifting versions of his possible role in the 2001 attacks. When he initially tried to plead guilty in 2002, he claimed an intimate knowledge of the hijackings. At his actual plea last year, he said his attack was to come later.

But during the sentencing trial, Moussaoui testified that al-Qaeda had instructed him to fly the fifth plane into the White House. His crew, he told jurors, was to include "shoe bomber" Richard Reid.

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