ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A defiant Zacarias Moussaoui--the only person charged in the United States with terrorism in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks--told a judge Monday that he wants to represent himself in a trial without a jury, and called for the destruction of America and Jews everywhere.
Moussaoui's fiery remarks appeared to surprise even his own court-appointed defense team. They came during what was supposed to be a routine hearing before U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema in federal court near Washington.
But the hearing quickly became anything but routine as Moussaoui, a French militant of Moroccan descent, insisted on addressing the judge. He then launched into a calm but forceful hourlong discourse about his unfair treatment in custody, and how his own lawyers are part of a conspiracy to convict him and sentence him to death.
Brinkema had set the hearing to discuss Moussaoui's complaints about oppressive prison conditions, including a cramped, overly bright cell and the lack of a computer to read the volumes of government evidence in the case. On Monday, Moussaoui repeated those complaints.
But as his lawyers sat silently beside him, Moussaoui, 33, went on to describe himself as "a slave to Allah" and called upon Allah to vanquish the non-Muslim forces in the world.
Moussaoui also vowed repeatedly to vigorously oppose the U.S. effort to convict and execute him for allegedly conspiring with Osama bin Laden, the 19 hijackers and others in the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"America, I am ready to fight . . . even with both hands tied behind my back," Moussaoui said in heavily accented English, noting that the United States already has spent millions of its "haram, or evil money, to kill me."
Moussaoui, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to commit terrorism, apparently startled the veteran judge by asking for a nonjury trial. Brinkema said she wasn't even sure it was constitutionally possible in a case where the federal government is seeking to execute someone.
"You want to waive a trial by jury?" Brinkema asked the diminutive Moussaoui, who wore a dark green jumpsuit with "Prisoner" on the back.
"Yes," replied Moussaoui, standing at a lectern and facing her.
"Whether it is even possible in a federal capital [punishment] case, we haven't even looked at it," Brinkema said.
Judge Yields on Some Requests
Later, after consulting with defense attorneys and prosecutors, the judge agreed that it was possible for Moussaoui not only to represent himself but to seek a nonjury trial in which she would hear the evidence. Brinkema, a former federal prosecutor, would then decide on Moussaoui's guilt or innocence and determine whether to spare his life on any of four criminal counts that could bring the death penalty.
Brinkema reserved judgment on all of those issues, saying she wanted Moussaoui to undergo a mental competency test first to determine whether he should be allowed to give up his right to court-appointed lawyers. She also said the federal government would need to support a nonjury trial as well, and she asked prosecutors to prepare a response. And she announced that Moussaoui would get his computer and have the other prison-condition issues resolved.
Outside court, federal prosecutors had no comment on the day's proceedings. Neither did Moussaoui's three court-appointed defense lawyers. As they left the courtroom together, the head of the defense team, Frank Dunham Jr., quipped to a colleague outside, "We just got fired."
Former Deputy Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said he was surprised at Moussaoui's requests.
"You are talking about a defendant representing himself in a capital case; this is the ultimate roll of the dice on any number of levels," Holder said. "Moussaoui has really complicated an already complicated case."
On one hand, a judge would probably be more inclined than a jury to cut through the emotion-laden legal arguments of a Sept. 11-related prosecution and decide the case solely on the evidence, said Holder, a former federal prosecutor and judge. As the former No. 2 person in the Justice Department, Holder said, he supervised Brinkema and found her to be particularly good at discarding emotion in favor of evidence.
That could prove critically important for Moussaoui, whom some authorities believe may have been chosen by Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network to be the 20th hijacker.
So far, however, authorities have provided no proof in a public forum that Moussaoui ever met any of the 19 hijackers or other alleged co-conspirators. What's more, Moussaoui had been taken into custody on immigration violations three weeks before the attacks.
But Holder said a jury of 12 might be less inclined than a judge to vote to execute Moussaoui. "You just need one member of the jury to find that the death penalty is not appropriate," Holder said.