Moussaoui has a week to think about guilty plea

Thursday, July 18th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) _ Zacarias Moussaoui, now a self-described al-Qaida loyalist, has a week to decide whether he still wants to plead guilty to conspiring with the Sept. 11 hijackers.

``Bet on me, I will (plead guilty),'' Moussaoui told U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema on Thursday after she refused to accept his guilty plea.

Moussaoui, acting as his own lawyer, surprised a routine arraignment by raising his hand and suddenly announcing, ``I want to enter a plea, I want to enter a plea of guilty.''

By doing so, Moussaoui told the judge, he could tell authorities what he knows about the Sept. 11 attacks and have his life spared by a government that said it would seek to execute him.

``So now I'm saying that for the guilt phase, I'm guilty,'' Moussaoui said. ``But the death penalty, we will see.''

Brinkema's refusal to accept the plea was rare, if not unprecedented. She set a new arraignment for next Thursday, so Moussaoui could respond again to a third indictment that has added allegations to permit use of the federal death penalty.

``If a defendant stands up in court and says, 'I'm guilty of the offense,' you may put yourself in a position where you cannot undo those words,'' the judge said in explaining her delay.

Moussaoui has asked in handwritten motions to testify before a grand jury about the attacks, but insisted on conditions the judge refused to accept. Brinkema said Moussaoui has now waived those conditions.

``I know exactly who done it,'' he said in court Thursday, standing at the lawyers' lectern facing the judge. ``I know which group, who participated, when it was decided. I have many information.''

It was unclear whether Moussaoui would testify or whether the government would consider his information reliable enough to negotiate a deal to spare his life if the judge accepts the plea. Government officials believe Moussaoui may have been planning to be the 20th hijacker until he was arrested on immigration violations less than a month before the attacks.

Moussaoui has so far denied he was part of the Sept. 11 conspiracy but told the judge, ``I am member of al-Qaida. I pledge bayat (a loyalty oath) to Osama bin Laden.''

On Thursday Moussaoui sat alone in the middle of three seats at the defense table except when he stood to address the court. He wore the standard green jumpsuit issued by the Alexandria Detention Center.

He argued often with Brinkema, who at one point threatened to have U.S. marshals remove Moussaoui from the courtroom if he did not sit down. The momentary crisis subsided and Moussaoui stayed put.

Another time, Moussaoui threw up both hands in a movement of self-defense.

``You can put your hands down, Mr. Moussaoui,'' the judge said.

``Yeah, but I don't want them (U.S. marshals) to jump on me,'' Moussaoui responded.

``No one's going to jump on you if you be quiet when I speak,'' Brinkema said.

Lawyers differed over what would happen if Brinkema accepted the plea and prosecutors went ahead with plans to seek a death sentence.

Washington lawyer Plato Cacheris said he doubts Brinkema would decide on her own whether to impose a death sentence, saying, ``There would probably be a jury empaneled for that purpose.''

However, George Washington University law professor Stephen Saltzburg said Moussaoui would waive his right to a jury entirely if he pleads guilty.

Brinkema has hard choices ahead no matter what Moussaoui tells her next week. If Moussaoui still wants to plead guilty, Brinkema could accept or reject the plea. She would probably base that decision on Moussaoui's answers to questions asked of all federal defendants who plead guilty.

``She can reject the plea if she doesn't feel it's knowing, voluntary and competent,'' Cacheris said.

The judge gave Moussaoui a similar message, telling him, ``You cannot plead guilty and then say, 'But I didn't do this and I didn't do that and somebody else did that.'''

If Brinkema rejects the plea, the government would presumably take its case to a jury whether Moussaoui chose to participate or not.

The judge also could place the entire process on hold for a fuller examination of Moussaoui's competence. Brinkema has previously found Moussaoui competent to act as his own lawyer, but his rambling statements in court and a flood of handwritten pleadings with bizarre statements caused her to reconsider.