Moussaoui judge plans to accept guilty plea
Friday hearing set for conspiracy case connected to 9/11 attacks
From Phil Hirschkorn
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The federal judge presiding over the Zacarias Moussaoui trial has scheduled a Friday hearing to accept a guilty plea in the only U.S. prosecution connected to the September 11, 2001, attacks, court officials said.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema set the hearing for Friday afternoon at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, officials said.
Brinkema also ruled that Moussaoui was mentally competent to enter a guilty plea.
The announcement came after Brinkema met privately Wednesday with Moussaoui.
Despite the judge's decision Wednesday and previous efforts by Moussaoui to enter a plea, the defendant's attorney expressed caution over what would happen at Friday's hearing.
"We don't even know if a guilty plea is going to be accepted by the judge on Friday," said Frank Dunham, the Virginia public defender who heads Moussaoui's defense team.
The U.S. Justice Department declined to comment on Wednesday's development.
The plea hearing comes two weeks after Moussaoui wrote the judge and prosecutors indicating that after three years and eight months in custody, he is willing to plead guilty to terrorism conspiracy charges, some of which make him eligible for the death penalty.
"She does not want to set up a plea agreement if it is not going to go down," said one source familiar with the case.
An attempted guilty plea by Moussaoui broke down in court in July 2002 when he would not admit to all the charges in his indictment.
It was not immediately clear which of the six counts Moussaoui would admit to, but another source familiar with the case said the defendant was expected to concede advance knowledge of some September 11 plot details.
In the past, Moussaoui has denied any role in the multiple hijackings that crashed planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing 2,973 people.
He has admitted belonging to al Qaeda, the radical Islamic terrorist organization linked to September 11 and numerous other attacks around the world, and swearing allegiance to the group's leader, Saudi exile Osama bin Laden.
Competence an issue earlier
Moussaoui's competence had been an underlying issue, especially after he fired his court-appointed attorneys three years ago and chose to represent himself. Brinkema stripped him of that right last year after he repeatedly submitted rambling and redundant motions and did not heed her warnings to stop them.
The renewed plea discussions appear to have begun with an April 8 letter from Moussaoui that's listed on the court docket but remains under seal.
Moussaoui, 36, a Frenchman of Moroccan heritage, has been in U.S. custody since August 2001 after arousing suspicion at a Minnesota flight school. After paying nearly $9,000 cash tuition, he sought Boeing 747 simulator training when he didn't even know how to fly smaller planes.
He initially was detained for overstaying his 90-day visa and later held in New York as a material witness in the September 11 investigation.
A December 2001 indictment accused him of six conspiracies -- to commit terrorism transcending national boundaries, to commit aircraft piracy, to destroy aircraft, to use weapons of mass destruction, to murder U.S. government employees and to destroy U.S. government property.
The first four counts make him eligible for the death penalty, which the government is seeking.
None of the charges allege that Moussaoui committed murder, but prosecutors have argued he bears responsibility for the September 11 deaths because he did not disclose what he allegedly knew about the plot after his arrest.
Prosecutors maintain that his actions -- training in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, taking flying lessons in the United States and buying knives and a global positioning system -- mirrored those of the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks and that Moussaoui received money from the same plot coordinators overseas.
The government long ago interviewed relatives of 9/11 victims as potential witnesses to offer testimony in a sentencing phase.
Case has faced numerous delays
Brinkema has presided over the case since the government moved it to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, where the Pentagon is located, in January 2002.
Originally set for fall 2002, the trial has been delayed numerous times by defense requests for time to review the voluminous evidence and by a procedural dispute over access to certain al Qaeda members, now in custody, who had a leading role in planning the attacks.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court thwarted Moussaoui's attempt to question the detainees directly -- suspected September 11 master planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, coordinator Ramzi Binalshibh and hijacker financier Mustafa al-Hawsawi.
The ruling meant a jury would hear only written summaries of what they have told their interrogators, some of which, according to Brinkema and a federal appeals court, would help Moussaoui's defense and help him avoid a death penalty.
If a guilty plea is accepted, the court likely would impanel a jury to determine Moussaoui's punishment, either life in prison or the death penalty.
If Moussaoui were to waive his right to a jury, and the government did not object, the judge alone could consider the sentence.
In death penalty cases, the prosecution must show that "aggravating factors" such as grave indifference to human life or future dangerousness outweigh "mitigating factors" such as remorse.
"Someone, either a judge or a jury, must determine beyond a reasonable doubt that government has proven an aggravating factor beyond guilt," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
"You can plead guilty, but you can't plead death," Dieter said. "You can request it."
Prosecutors long ago abandoned the theory that Moussaoui might have been the "20th hijacker" on September 11 had he not been in custody. They once introduced the theory that Moussaoui might have piloted a fifth plane targeting the White House.