Hearing to accept Moussaoui's plea slated for tomorrow

9/11 suspect is expected to say he's guilty, but he once changed mind

April 21, 2005|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Signaling a possible conclusion in the only American criminal case tied to the Sept. 11 attacks, a federal judge in Virginia scheduled a hearing for tomorrow to accept a guilty plea from alleged terror conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.

The outcome of the hearing before U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema is far from certain. Moussaoui, a 36-year-old French Islamic extremist, has shown a pattern of erratic behavior and once before announced he wanted to plead guilty, only to change his mind a week later.

But if a plea agreement goes forward, it would begin to draw to a close a case that has stretched on for more than three years without a trial and with few revelations about the plot behind the 2001 airplane hijackings that killed almost 3,000 people in New York and Washington.

That would be unlikely to change even if Moussaoui, the only person inside the United States charged in connection with the attacks, did take his case to a jury trial, one former counterterrorism official said.

"My own view is we will not learn anything more than what we've learned from the 9/11 commission," Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor who worked as a senior counterterrorism official in the Justice Department under President Bill Clinton, said yesterday. "And it would be such a bizarre proceeding, that it probably would not have much of a cathartic effect for the families."

If Moussaoui does plead guilty, a jury would be impaneled to decide whether he should receive the death penalty. It was not clear how soon that proceeding would begin if his guilty plea is finalized tomorrow.

No details provided

In a statement yesterday, a spokesman for the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., said only that Judge Brinkema had scheduled a hearing for 3:30 p.m. tomorrow to accept a guilty plea in Moussaoui's case.

The statement from court spokesman Edward A. Adams did not provide details about the plea agreement or indicate whether Brinkema has made a determination on whether Moussaoui is mentally competent to enter the plea. That is something legal analysts consider to be a potential sticking point.

Attorneys on both sides are under orders not to discuss the case publicly. But the Associated Press, quoting anonymous sources, reported yesterday that Moussaoui is expected to plead guilty to all six counts brought against him in a federal indictment in December 2001.

This week, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times reported that Moussaoui had indicated in a letter to Brinkema that he wanted to plead guilty and accept the possibility of a death sentence, despite objections from his court-appointed lawyers.

2001 arrest

Moussaoui was arrested in August 2001 after he aroused suspicions at a Minnesota flight school, in part by paying his $6,300 bill with cash.

After repeated delays, his case appeared headed for trial at the end of this year after the U.S. Supreme Court let stand last month a lower court's ruling that federal prosecutors could seek the death penalty for Moussaoui. But the Supreme Court also allowed defense lawyers to introduce testimony from other captured terrorism suspects that they say could vindicate their client.

In earlier court appearances and in his own rambling, vindictive court filings, Moussaoui has acknowledged that he is a member of al-Qaida but has denied any direct role in the plan to steer hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.

The government's description of Moussaoui's role has shifted. When he was charged in December 2001 with participating in a broad al-Qaida conspiracy to commit terrorism and hijack airplanes, officials indicated that he might have been the so-called 20th hijacker - intended to assist the 19 who boarded the airplanes that morning.

But prosecutors later backed away from that theory, suggesting instead that Moussaoui might have been recruited for a second wave of attacks.

The independent commission that studied the events surrounding Sept. 11 also offered varying allegations about Moussaoui's role. But the commission's final report concluded that Moussaoui was "being primed" as a possible Sept. 11 hijacker pilot.

An earlier staff report from the commission noted that CIA officials had received a briefing in August 2001 about Moussaoui's arrest that was titled, "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly" but did not follow up on it.

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