By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
RICHMOND, Jan. 26 -- The case of convicted Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui returned to the federal courts Monday, with his attorneys arguing that his conviction should be overturned because he was deprived of his constitutional rights.
The attorneys told the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit that Moussaoui's guilty plea was invalid because he was confused about the charges and didn't know that other al-Qaeda members had given information to interrogators that could have cleared him. Moussaoui pleaded guilty in 2005 to an al-Qaeda conspiracy to crash planes into U.S. buildings that led to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. After a two-month sentencing trial in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, he was sentenced to life in prison.
"Moussaoui's plea was un-counseled, unknowing and unintelligent,'' said attorney Justin S. Antonipillai, who argued that Moussaoui should get a new trial or be resentenced if the plea stands. Moussaoui is the only person convicted in the United States in connection with the hijackings.
Legal experts said appellate courts rarely overturn guilty pleas, and the 4th Circuit's chief judge, Karen Williams, was openly skeptical of Moussaoui's argument. She pointed out that he testified in open court that al-Qaeda had instructed him to fly a fifth hijacked plane into the White House.
"Isn't it a little disingenuous for you to claim that there was no factual basis for the plea?" asked Williams, part of a three-judge panel that will decide the appeal.
"I don't mean to be disingenuous," responded Antonipillai, who acknowledged that the lower court judge, Leonie M. Brinkema, "did the best she could" to manage "an extraordinarily difficult case."
Justice Department attorney Kevin Gingras said the guilty plea and sentence should be upheld. "The judge was careful and cautious in this case and literally bent over backwards for Mr. Moussaoui," he said.
The dry legal arguments marked a departure from the often theatrical hearings in the case of Moussaoui, who was arrested more than three weeks before Sept. 11 after his behavior aroused suspicion at a Minnesota flight school. He became known for his frequent outbursts in court. There were empty seats in the wood-paneled, green-carpeted courtroom, and only a few of the Sept. 11 family members who attended the sentencing trial showed up for the hearing.
Moussaoui, who is serving his sentence at a highly secure federal prison in Colorado known as the "supermax," was not in court; defendants usually aren't during appellate hearings. His attorneys would not comment on his views about the appeal or his conditions of confinement.
Phyllis Rodriguez, whose son, Gregory, died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, said she attended the hearing because she felt that Moussaoui might not have gotten a fair trial and because there was no evidence that he was involved in the attacks. "In honor of my son and in his name, I would like to trust justice to be done,'' she said, "not something to feed the anger and vengeance of the public."