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Judge Likely to Let Moussaoui Represent Self

Courts: Prosecutors say the suspected accomplice in the Sept. 11 attacks is mentally competent.

June 08, 2002|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON -- Zacarias Moussaoui, charged with conspiracy in the Sept. 11 attacks, is mentally competent to represent himself in his upcoming trial, federal prosecutors said Friday, citing a court-appointed psychiatrist's findings.

Without objection from the Justice Department, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema is expected to approve Moussaoui's request at a hearing Thursday in Alexandria, Va., and allow him to fire his court-appointed lawyers and represent himself. Moussaoui, 34, faces the death penalty if convicted in the case, which is set for trial this year.

Such a ruling, however, could throw the already high-profile case into turmoil and allow Moussaoui, who has no legal training, to use the courtroom as a platform to voice his extreme anti-American views, as he did at a hearing in April, legal experts said.

"Under the current legal standard, you basically have to be chewing the rug to be found incompetent to represent yourself," said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. "And while Moussaoui appears to be extreme, unhinged and unpredictable, he also appears to be competent under the government's standards.

"For the judge and the prosecution, there was no good option," Turley added. "He could be found incompetent [to represent himself] and thus incompetent to stand trial, or they find him competent and he could turn the trial into a circus."

Moussaoui has indicated that he intends to do just that. The French militant of Moroccan descent shocked a packed courtroom two months ago when he rose and gave a nearly hourlong diatribe, calling for the destruction of the United States, Jews everywhere and the "Jewish state."

At that hearing, Brinkema ordered a psychiatric evaluation of Moussaoui, in part because he claimed his court-appointed lawyers, along with the government and the judge, were part of a conspiracy to kill him.

On Friday, federal prosecutors said the court-appointed psychiatrist had a two-hour interview with Moussaoui recently and concluded that he did not appear to have a "major mental disease or defect."

Moussaoui was arrested in mid-August after officials at a Minnesota flight school called the FBI and said he was acting suspiciously. He was indicted in December and charged with conspiring with Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network to carry out the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon along with 19 hijackers.

U.S. authorities have said Moussaoui was intended to be the 20th hijacker; his defense lawyers say he never had any contact with any of the hijackers.

Frank Dunham Jr., Moussaoui's chief public defender, said Friday that he will ask the judge next week to delay a decision on Moussaoui's competence until he can be evaluated more thoroughly. And if Brinkema does allow Moussaoui to represent himself, Dunham said, she should at least relax some of the restrictions proposed Friday by the Justice Department and allow his legal team to remain as standby counsel.

In their motion, the prosecutors said Moussaoui should not be allowed to see any classified documents that include much of the evidence against him. They also argued that his access to a telephone to interview prospective witnesses and to research materials should be restricted.

"Clarence Darrow couldn't defend himself under these restrictions," Dunham said.

Nevertheless, Dunham acknowledged, "everybody is concerned about what he is going to try and do if he is allowed to represent himself."

Dunham noted that the government wants to put a stun belt on Moussaoui during the trial. In their Friday filing, prosecutors said a stun belt "may be required to protect both the dignity of the court proceedings in this case and the nation's security." The final decision rests with the judge.

If Moussaoui is allowed to represent himself, he will essentially be in control of the courtroom much of the time.

Under federal law, Moussaoui would be allowed to call whomever he wants as witnesses and question them, and to cross-examine any witnesses the government calls to testify against him. And he will be able to give opening and closing arguments, and say whatever he wants for as long as he wants, Turley and other constitutional law experts said.

"I'm not sure what other options there are" for Brinkema and prosecutors, said Laurie Levenson, a constitutional law professor at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor. She said Moussaoui's public defenders have a good chance of at least sparing his life by raising questions about the lack of definitive connections between him and the hijackers, particularly since he was in custody on Sept. 11.

"But his goal here seems to be to use this trial as a forum to get his anti-American message out," Levenson said. "It may cost him his life to do so."

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