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Guilty plea, then a change of mind

Published Sep. 3, 2005

After attempting to plead guilty Thursday to charges that he conspired in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Zacarias Moussaoui abruptly withdrew the guilty plea and insisted again that he was not involved in the suicide hijackings last fall.

The sudden turnaround by Moussaoui, a 34-year-old French national who has admitted that he is a member of the al-Qaida terrorist network and is loyal to Osama bin Laden, came when he balked at a federal judge's ruling that any guilty plea would require him to confess to detailed involvement in the Sept. 11 conspiracy.

Moussaoui said that such a confession would be untrue and would almost certainly result in a death sentence _ and that, as a result, he needed to withdraw the startling offer of a guilty plea that he first made at a court hearing last week.

"Dictated by my obligation to my creator, Allah, and to save and defend my life, I withdraw my guilty plea," he said in heavily accented English. "I cannot plead guilty for something that I don't know."

Glaring at Judge Leonie M. Brinkema and at federal prosecutors, Moussaoui said that "you want to tie me, to link me to certain facts that will guarantee my death." He suggested that while he may have had some association with some of the suicide hijackers, he had nothing to do with the events of Sept. 11. "I was not directly involved with these people," he said.

At a court hearing last week, Moussaoui, who has fired his court-appointed defense team and is acting as his own lawyer, announced that he intended to plead guilty to the indictment in what he suggested was a tactical move intended to spare him from the death penalty.

He said Thursday that the guilty plea would have short-circuited a long jury trial that would have served as a prosecution "showcase" to inflame the jury and the public over the events of Sept. 11.

By moving instead directly to post-conviction hearings on the penalty, Moussaoui said, he had hoped to have a more dispassionate forum to "put forward to the American people my role when I came to the United States, what I did _ and what I didn't do."

While he might be a member of an organization described by the United States as a terrorist group, he said, "it doesn't mean that I'm on the plane," an apparent reference to the four jets commandeered by hijackers on Sept. 11.

But Brinkema, who had refused to accept the initial guilty plea last week, said Thursday that she could not accept the plea on the terms outlined by Moussaoui. "What I'm telling you is I can't accept your guilty plea because you're not admitting to this offense, and you should not admit to the offense if you don't agree that you did that," she said.

When Moussaoui withdrew the guilty plea a few minutes later, Brinkema told him that "this was not an unwise decision on your part _ you clearly are not admitting to the essential elements of these conspiracies, and you have an absolute right under our criminal justice system to require the government to put its proof before a jury."

She announced that in fairness to Moussaoui, she would bar prosecutors from mentioning at trial that he had attempted to plead guilty on Thursday.

Moussaoui was arrested last August after he aroused suspicions at a flight school in Minnesota where he was training.

While prosecutors have alleged that his actions mirrored those of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 _ his flight training, his receipt of money transfers from Germany and his training at al-Qaida camps _ the government has not offered evidence of a direct link between Moussaoui and the hijackings.

In his court appearances over the last week, Moussaoui has acknowledged his unwavering loyalty to al-Qaida and to bin Laden, and he has suggested that he was sent to the United States to participate in some kind of terrorist conspiracy. But he has insisted that it was not the conspiracy that resulted in the Sept. 11 attacks, for which he now faces the death penalty.

Moussaoui, wearing a green jumpsuit with the word "prisoner" stenciled across his back, said after entering the courtroom Thursday that he was prepared to plead guilty to the four charges in his indictment that carried the death penalty: conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, to commit aircraft piracy, to destroy aircraft and to use weapons of mass destruction.

By pleading guilty to the four death-penalty counts, he said, he could avoid a high-publicity trial and move immediately to the penalty phase of the case _ a minitrial before a jury that is required in federal cases in which capital punishment is sought. He said a trial would be used by the government "to inflame" the jury. "I have no intention to go through this," he said.

In the penalty phase, he said, he hoped that he could convince the 12 jurors who would decide his fate that he had no involvement in Sept. 11 and did not deserve to die.

"That's why I want to talk to these 12 people, these 12 Americans, who are my enemy, but sometimes you can find an honest enemy," he said. "These people will decide one day either to put me to death or not."

In attempting to plead guilty to the four death penalty counts, he said he would retain his not-guilty plea to two other counts that did not carry the threat of execution. If Moussaoui's guilty pleas had been accepted Thursday, he still would have been required to face trial on the two other counts: conspiracy to murder U.S. employees and conspiracy to destroy property.

At a news conference after the hearing, Frank W. Dunham Jr., one of the lawyers assigned by the court to be available to assist Moussaoui, said that Moussaoui's actions Thursday showed that he had not fully understood the concept of a guilty plea.

"I think that he found out what the repercussions of a guilty plea were, what it was he had to swallow," said Dunham, who has previously argued that Moussaoui may be mentally ill and is incapable of defending himself. "I don't think he understood that he had to admit 9/11 in order to plead guilty. He showed how serious he is about denying his involvement in 9/11."

The charges

The six charges in the U.S. government indictment against French citizen Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in connection with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks:

Conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries.

Conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy.

Conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.

Conspiracy to destroy aircraft.

Conspiracy to murder United States employees.

Conspiracy to destroy property.

Source: Department of Justice