Moussaoui withdraws bid to plead guilty
Accused 9/11 conspirator back on track for trial
ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (CNN) -- Zacarias Moussaoui attempted to plead guilty to terrorism charges Thursday, but under the pressure of routine questioning by a federal judge, the accused September 11 conspirator withdrew his plea and set himself back on track for a fall trial.
In the course of 90 minutes, the courtroom experienced a 180-degree turnaround.
First, Moussaoui stated that he wanted to plead guilty to the four death penalty-eligible conspiracy charges against him and then retreated from his position when he realized there was no way he could do that and continue to deny a role in the September 11 attacks.
"I have to withdraw my guilty plea," Moussaoui told U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema. "You want to tie me, to link me to certain facts who will guarantee my death," he said, adding that suicide was forbidden by his religion, Islam.
In a federal death penalty case, a jury first determines whether a defendant is guilty, and then in a second phase, decides whether to impose capital punishment. A guilty plea by Moussaoui would push his trial ahead to the penalty phase.
Moussaoui told the court that entering guilty pleas was a "tactical decision" intended to avoid a death sentence. "I have to take this course of action in order to preserve my life," he said.
Moussaoui said he would want a jury to hear directly from him why he had come to the United States last year, when he enrolled in flight schools in Oklahoma and Minnesota.
"If 12 people of America find that I have to be put to jail, to be killed for this what I did, but only for what I did, not for what they claim, okay," he said.
Moussaoui expressed confidence in a non-death penalty verdict, even though Americans are his "enemy." He said, "Sometime you can find honest enemy."
'I don't believe you're ready to enter a guilty plea'
The 34-year-old French national had surprised nearly everyone last week, during an arraignment on the government's superseding indictment, when he announced his plan to reverse his not guilty plea.
"I will go through the indictment to show where are the factual basis for my guilt," Moussaoui said on Thursday, adding that it would be "easy in theory for me to plead guilty for 90 percent" of it.
Moussaoui has admitted participating in an "ongoing conspiracy" since 1995, belonging to the Islamic terrorist group, al Qaeda, and swearing allegiance to its leader, Osama bin Laden.
Brinkema did not let him conduct a historic review of the indictment, leading to the breakdown in the plea colloquy. As the judge questioned him regarding count one, conspiracy to commit acts of terror, Moussaoui said he would want to identify which of dozens of alleged actions by al Qaeda soldiers involved him and which didn't, namely, he claims, the September 11 plot.
"It is not proper to say that yes, if I plead guilty, yes, you are on the plane," Moussaoui said.
Brinkema admonished him, "You can argue that 'I was on the periphery of the conspiracy,'" but not that he was not a part of it. By the time she skipped to count two, conspiracy to hijack airplanes, the plea process had stalled.
"At this point, I don't believe you're ready to enter a guilty plea to any of the counts," Brinkema said.
The conversation never reached the third and fourth conspiracy counts -- to destroy aircraft and to use weapons of mass destruction. Moussaoui never offered to plead guilty to conspiracy counts five and six -- to murder U.S. nationals and to destroy property.
After a 15-minute recess requested by Moussaoui, he withdrew his guilty pleas. Brinkema told him that she would not permit prosecutors to mention them to the trial jury.
Defendant's mother relieved
Court-appointed defense lawyers, who have been on standby status since Moussaoui won the right to represent himself last month, said Thursday's turn of events was not surprising.
"I think that he found out what the repercussions of a guilty plea were," said federal defender Frank Dunham. "I don't think he understood that he had to admit to 9-11 involvement in order to plead guilty."
Edward MacMahon, another standby lawyer, said Moussaoui "showed no understanding whatsoever of what he needed to do to enter a guilty plea today."
Moussaoui's mother, Aicha el-Wafi, who traveled from France to be in court, said she was relieved by her son's change of heart.
"When I visited my son in June, he told me he had not been involved in the September 11 attacks," she said, speaking through an interpreter. "When I heard last week that he had decided to plead guilty, I was really, really scared."
She said she was "very happy there will be a full trial" because her son "is no longer able to think rationally" after 11 months in custody, mostly in solitary confinement.
Moussaoui was detained nearly a month before the September 11 attacks after a Minnesota flight school reported him to law enforcement. Moussaoui, who did not even have a pilot's license, had aroused suspicions by seeking training on a 747 flight simulator.
Judge rules Moussaoui competent
Prosecutors say that, in addition to flight training, Moussaoui received money from the same overseas source as some September 11 hijackers and underwent weapons training in an al Qaeda camp inside Afghanistan.
Moussaoui on Thursday essentially conceded attending the training camps.
At the start of the proceedings, Brinkema ruled that Moussaoui remained mentally competent, in her eyes, to serve as his own counsel, although he had filed dozens of repetitive, improper, and late motions that repeatedly insulted the judge, the government and the attorneys.
"Although the defendant's pleadings are somewhat confrontational and somewhat unusual, they do not give the court sufficient basis to make any kind of finding that this man is not competent to go forward with a guilty plea," she said.
Brinkema also declined the plea by standby defense counsel that Moussaoui be subjected to an in-depth psychiatric exam.
The attorneys point to Moussaoui's constant flip-flops and certain irrational beliefs. For example, Moussaoui reiterated Thursday his view that the FBI was complicit in September 11 because it had him and the 19 hijackers under surveillance and knew Moussaoui "was not directly involved in these people."
The standby defense attorneys also rate Moussaoui's legal competence as poor. "It's even worse than if he had no legal knowledge. The little bit that he has is completely sending him down primrose paths and blind alleys that he can't get back from," Dunham said in an interview with CNN. "He can't seem to understand why what he reads in the law library over in the jail doesn't seem to make any sense when he gets to court."
After Moussaoui initially tried to plead guilty last week, Brinkema gave the defendant a week to think twice about it and to pursue a plea bargain with prosecutors. No such discussions occurred.
Moussaoui hasn't spoken to Dunham, MacMahon and two other Virginia lawyers appointed to assist him in three months and returns unopened the mail they send him. But he did tell Brinkema at the end of the hearing he would ask them to track down a potential witness in England, where Moussaoui lived on and off from 1992 until last year.
While attempting to distance himself the September 11, Moussaoui has said he knows "when it was decided" to carry out the operation that killed 3,000 people by crashing airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.
Prior to his courtroom appearance Thursday, Moussaoui met for 20 minutes with a law professor from New York University who, afterward, would not divulge the nature of their discussion. (Full story)
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