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'20th Hijacker' Suspect Tries Guilty Plea

Hearing: Zacarias Moussaoui is told by the court that he will be given a week to decide whether he really wants to admit to capital case.


ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged "20th hijacker," told a stunned federal courtroom Thursday that he wants to plead guilty to terrorism charges because he is a member of Al Qaeda and pledges his loyalty to Osama bin Laden.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, startled by the unusual maneuver, refused to accept the plea at what was supposed to be a routine hearing. Instead, she told the French-Moroccan defendant that she will give him a week to contemplate whether he really wants to admit guilt to capital charges that could result in his execution.

"Bet on me," an enraged Moussaoui responded. "I will."

The exchange capped a hearing that was tumultuous even compared to past standards set by the unpredictable Moussaoui. He shouted at the judge, interrupted her repeatedly, mocked her instructions and raised his arm in a prolonged gesture of defiance as she tried to settle him down.

Legal observers have predicted for weeks that Moussaoui's prosecution would turn into a legal circus once the defendant won the right to defend himself, and many said Thursday's hearing confirmed their fears.

"This is the nightmare we all anticipated once he decided he wanted to represent himself," said former Deputy Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.

Even before his surprise attempt to plead guilty, Brinkema warned Moussaoui that he was hurting his own case by filing dozens of often repetitive motions since the judge granted him the right to defend himself.

On an almost daily basis in recent weeks, Moussaoui has filed handwritten pleadings with the court that proclaim his innocence, condemn America, Jews and the judicial system, and accuse Brinkema, U.S. prosecutors and his former defense attorneys of conspiring to have him killed.

"It is a waste of your time ... and the court's resources for you to keep raising the same issues again and again.... I'm putting you on notice that I don't expect any more of these motions to be filed," Brinkema said.

She said the motions call into question his competence and, if they continue, she may be forced to reconsider her decision to let him act as his own attorney.

Moussaoui predicted that the judge will end up doing just that in an effort to railroad him. "I will be gagged, and you will carry out your so-called justice," he said.

Moussaoui faces the death penalty if he is convicted on charges of taking part in the Sept. 11 conspiracy. He was imprisoned in Minnesota on an immigration violation at the time of the terrorist attacks, but authorities say his activities--accepting a $14,000 wire transfer from a terrorist suspect and taking flight training in Minnesota--mirrored those of the hijackers. Authorities allege that he was destined to be the 20th hijacker had he not been incarcerated.

Moussaoui offered a wildly contradictory defense Thursday, declaring on the one hand that he had nothing to do with Sept. 11 and proclaiming his terrorist allegiances on the other.

When asked by Brinkema at the start of Thursday's hearing how he wished to plead to a new indictment that lays out more detailed death penalty allegations against him, Moussaoui said he would offer "an affirmative plea," offering a definition he had found in Black's Law Dictionary.

Brinkema said such a plea is not recognized in federal criminal courts, and she entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. But the hearing became more contentious, and later Moussaoui shouted out: "I didn't make this plea!"

Then he proclaimed his guilt.

"I, Moussaoui Zacarias, with full knowledge, enter a plea of guilty. I am a member of Al Qaeda. I pledge bayat [loyalty] to Osama bin Laden," he said as Brinkema cut him off, warning that he was making incriminating statements that could be used in court.

He said he was not involved in the hijackings but that he knew who was. And he said he wants to skip the guilt phase of his trial, now scheduled to start Sept. 30, and go straight to the penalty phase to determine whether he should be executed.

"Now I'm saying for the guilt phase, I'm guilty, but for the death penalty, we will see," he said. "I am guilty. Now the question is how much."

His declaration left the courtroom abuzz as his former defense attorneys--now appointed by the court as "stand-by counsel" to assist in his defense, even though Moussaoui won't speak to them--shook their heads.

Stand-by counsel Gerald Zerkin, asked by a reporter what he thought of Moussaoui's attempted plea, said: "He's insane. You haven't figured out yet that he's crazy?"

Brinkema said she expects to question Moussaoui in court next week to determine whether he understands the nature of the charges and whether you "absolutely want to enter a guilty plea."

Alan H. Yamamoto, also appointed as a stand-by counsel, said he believes it will be difficult for the judge to accept a guilty plea.

"She's not obligated to take the plea. She's going to be hard-pressed to accept it, based on all of the contradictory statements he's made," he said.

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