Plea of innocent for Moussaoui, only defendant in Sept. 11 terror attacks

Wednesday, January 2nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) _ Zacarias Moussaoui invoked the name of Allah and declared to a court Wednesday ``I do not have anything to plead.'' A judge entered an innocent plea to charges he conspired to murder thousands on Sept. 11.

Wearing a dark green jumpsuit with the word ``prisoner'' on the back, the bearded, balding Moussaoui appeared for arraignment in a courthouse a few miles from where a jetliner crashed into the Pentagon nearly four months ago.

``In the name of Allah, I do not have anything to plead. I enter no plea. Thank you very much,'' Moussaoui told U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema after walking to the courtroom lectern.

Brinkema said she took that to mean he was pleading innocent to the charges. Moussaoui remained silent, but one of his lawyers, Frank Dunham, answered, ``Yes.'' The judge entered the innocent plea into the court record.

Moussaoui's lawyers had predicted their client would plead innocent. Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, is the first person directly charged in the Sept. 11 attacks. He faces six conspiracy charges, including four that could result in the death penalty.

Brinkema set a trial date of Oct. 14, with jury selection to begin Sept. 30. She rejected defense arguments that the date would be too close to the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and the vast amount of news coverage that could be expected at that time.

Brinkema said she was confident both sides could find an excellent jury in northern Virginia even though the courthouse is close to the Pentagon.

``It was surprising to me how few people from the northern Virginia pool knew anybody'' killed or injured on Sept. 11, the judge said.

Moussaoui did not speak to his lawyers, and spent much of the hearing seated with one hand lightly resting on his chin. He kept a wrinkled brown piece of paper in front of him.

The two sides debated the trial date.

Defense lawyer Gerald Zerkin told Brinkema that ``the need to be further away from Sept. 11 is obvious.''

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Spencer said news about the attacks ``is going to have to be dealt with by the court no matter when'' the trial begins.

Zerkin argued for a trial date in early 2003, saying the three defense attorneys _ two of whom are public defenders appointed by the court _ are facing a vast indictment that is international in scope and lists events in several European countries.

He said the defense team will need security clearances, interpreters for Arabic documents and to bone up on the history of bin Laden's al-Qaida network and the principles of Islam.

``We simply cannot prepare a case in that amount of time,'' Zerkin argued.

Brinkema, however, chose the government's suggested trial date, saying news reports about the one-year anniversary will have waned by mid-October. ``I think the date suggested by the government does clear that (Sept. 11 anniversary) adequately,'' she said.

Federal marshals brought Moussaoui to the courthouse nearly four hours before the scheduled arraignment.

At least a dozen U.S. marshals were in the same courtroom on Dec. 19 when Moussaoui, who had just been transferred from detention in New York, appeared before a federal magistrate to hear the charges against him. Security personnel also ringed the federal court building.

Four charges in the six-count indictment could result in Moussaoui's execution, if he were convicted. Brinkema set a March 29 deadline for prosecutors to decide whether they would seek the death penalty.

Moussaoui's mother, Aicha el-Wafi, came to the United States from France last week and said her son told her he could prove his innocence. She didn't appear in the courtroom Wednesday

The defendant, 33, is a French citizen of Moroccan descent who received a master's degree in England.

Although Moussaoui has been in federal custody on immigration charges since August, when he aroused suspicions at a Minnesota flight school, the indictment says he conspired with the Sept. 11 hijackers to kill and maim victims in the United States. While accusing him of links to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, the indictment does not explain his role in the terror attacks.

Nonetheless, Attorney General John Ashcroft called Moussaoui an active participant with the 19 hijackers who crashed four jetliners in New York, Washington and Western Pennsylvania, killing more than 3,000 people.

The indictment accuses Moussaoui of pursuing some of the same activities as the hijackers by taking flight training in the United States, inquiring about crop dusting and purchasing flight deck training videos.

Moussaoui received money in July and August from Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, an alleged member of a German terrorist cell who was a roommate of Mohammed Atta, the suspected ringleader in the attacks, the indictment charges. The FBI contends Bin al-Shibh may have been planning to be the 20th hijacker.

The indictment alleges that Moussaoui was present at the al-Qaida-affiliated Khalden Camp in Afghanistan. By the end of September 2000, he was making parallel moves to some of the hijackers with his flight lessons, crop-dusting interest and training video purchases.

A clear indication of the case's importance was Senate passage of legislation to broadcast the trial on closed-circuit television in the cities most affected by the hijackings.

The House has not acted on the measure, which is modeled on a similar privilege granted to Oklahoma City bombing victims and families.

Cameras usually are not permitted in federal courtrooms, but Court TV has challenged the rule as unconstitutional and filed a motion to broadcast the proceedings. Brinkema set a Jan. 9 hearing for Court TV's motion and gave the prosecution and defense until Friday to make their positions known.