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Moussaoui Drops Plan to Plead Guilty in Terrorism Plot

Courts: He suggests he may have had contacts with skyjackers but insists he had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks. The about-face sets stage for trial.

July 26, 2002|JOSH MEYER and ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Accused Al Qaeda soldier Zacarias Moussaoui pleaded guilty Thursday to four counts of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism, then abruptly withdrew his plea when a judge told him he would be admitting to knowingly participating in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Moussaoui's actions came during the latest in a series of tumultuous court hearings and set the stage for him to face a jury in September on charges that he was a willing conspirator in the worst-ever terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

"I want to plead guilty, but you want to link me to certain facts that will ensure my death," Moussaoui told U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema. He added that it is against his Muslim religion to enter such pleas because it would amount to committing suicide. "Because of your conditions you put on my guilty plea ... I cannot do this."

Moussaoui's four court-appointed lawyers sat by while their prospective client, who has insisted on representing himself, engaged in legal arguments with Brinkema for more than 90 minutes. Earlier in the day, Brinkema rejected the lawyers' efforts to delay the hearing on the grounds that Moussaoui was not mentally competent to represent himself in such a complex case.

"We're going to trial," said one of the defense lawyers, Frank W. Dunham Jr., after the hearing.

Assistant Atty. Gen. Michael Chertoff, who was in attendance, had no comment, but one defense lawyer said Moussaoui's reversal was clearly a setback for the Justice Department. "It sure would have made their lives a lot easier if he had pleaded" guilty, said Edward B. MacMahon Jr.

Moussaoui's legal about-face came one week after he stunned the courtroom by trying to plead guilty to at least some conspiracy charges. At that time, Brinkema told Moussaoui to take a week to think about the consequences of admitting to charges that could bring him the death penalty. Moussaoui indicated then he would not waver from his intention to plead guilty and that he was a member of Al Qaeda who had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden.

On Thursday, Moussaoui, 34, seemed far less defiant than he did a week before. While admitting to some involvement in terrorist activities, the French militant of Moroccan descent also insisted he had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

He suggested, for instance, that he spent time in an Al Qaeda camp in Kandahar and may have provided some training for terrorists and even food for one of the hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks. He also said he "may" have received money from one of the hijackers.

"I can say I might have engaged in these," Moussaoui said, his palms resting on the lectern as he calmly faced the judge. "But it doesn't put me on the plane."

While the government has never publicly linked Moussaoui to the 19 hijackers in any specific way, it has accused him of receiving $14,000 from another suspected co-conspirator, Ramzi Binalshibh, who authorities say was to be a 20th member of the hijacking teams. When Binalshibh was prevented from entering the United States, authorities have suggested, Moussaoui was preparing to take his place on one of the planes.

But Moussaoui appeared to reject that assertion, saying, "I did not know [about] Sept. 11."

In often rambling legal arguments, Moussaoui said he wanted to plead guilty to four of six counts against him because he expected to be convicted and wanted a chance to appeal to the jury to spare his life during the death penalty phase. He would do so, he said, by going through the lengthy indictment, accusation by accusation, and indicating where he has been wrongly accused.

"And if 12 people of America find I should be put to jail or put to death for what I did ... I will receive something that is fair or remotely fair," Moussaoui said, as his mother watched.

Initially, Moussaoui said he would plead guilty to four conspiracy charges: committing acts of terrorism, aircraft piracy, destroying aircraft and using weapons of mass destruction. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of death.

Moussaoui also faces two other charges: conspiracy to murder U.S. employees and conspiracy to destroy property.

But as Brinkema went through the specifics of the counts with him, Moussaoui repeatedly chafed at the judge's comments that he was formally admitting to being a willing and knowing member of the skyjacking plot. Finally, Brinkema told him, "You are clearly not admitting to the essential elements of this conspiracy."

Moussaoui asked for a recess to gather his thoughts, and when he came back, he agreed. "Because of my obligation to my creator, Allah, and to save and defend my life, I withdraw my guilty plea," he said.

Justice Department officials refused to discuss any prospects for plea bargain negotiations with Moussaoui and said prosecutors are moving ahead to the scheduled Sept. 30 trial.

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