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'Shoe Bomb' Suspect Offers Guilty Plea, but With Conditions

Courts: Reid wants wording that links him to Al Qaeda stricken from the indictment. Surprised prosecutors say they won't budge.

October 03, 2002|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Richard C. Reid, accused of trying to blow up a transatlantic passenger plane with explosives hidden in his shoes, intends to plead guilty if a federal judge in Boston will strike from the indictment any suggestion that he is an Al Qaeda-trained terrorist, his lawyers said Wednesday.

But federal prosecutors, caught off-guard by the surprise announcement, insisted that Reid is indeed a terrorist and said they would urge the judge to take the case to trial next month if Reid is trying to avoid a life sentence.

U.S. District Judge William G. Young said he will hold a hearing Friday on the proposed plea. He will decide how best to proceed in what is scheduled to be the first terror-related trial in the federal courts since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Talib, avoided trial by pleading guilty in July to aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan. He is set to be sentenced Friday. And the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States in connection with the attacks, was postponed for a second time this week. It is now scheduled to begin in June.

The unusual turn of events in the Reid case, just weeks before the start of his Nov. 4 trial, began when lawyers for the British-born Reid disclosed that he is ready to admit to the eight-count indictment filed against him that alleges he tried to ignite a bomb hidden in his sneakers during the American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami.

"It is the defendant's intent to admit the facts constituting the elements of the offenses charged in those counts," his lawyers advised the judge.

"Namely, attempted use on Dec. 22, 2001, of a weapon of mass destruction against one or more United States nationals while such nationals were outside the United States, and attempted murder on Dec. 22, 2001, of one or more such United States nationals."

The defense filing asked the court to strike from the indictment two paragraphs discussing Reid and Al Qaeda.

"It was not the government's intent, as conveyed to [defense] counsel, to present evidence at trial on the allegations" in those paragraphs, the defense lawyers said.

Separately, the lawyers issued a brief statement to the public attempting to explain the personal reasons behind their client's motives for seeking to plead guilty.

"He wants to avoid the publicity associated with a trial and the negative impact it is likely to have upon his family," the statement said.

Federal authorities, scrambling to respond to Reid's request, emphasized that they intend to pursue a life sentence against Reid, whether by pleading guilty or standing trial, and that they will not budge from their assertion that he is a terrorist.

In a one-page filing with the court late Wednesday afternoon, prosecutors in Boston urged Young not to strike the terrorism language from the indictment.

"The indictment," the filing said, "contains no immaterial or irrelevant allegations that are unfairly prejudicial to the defendant."

The paragraphs in question describe Al Qaeda as a "designated foreign terrorist organization" by the U.S. and state that "Richard Colvin Reid received training from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan."

In addition, in earlier court filings, the government has indicated that Reid had help from an "Al Qaeda bomb maker." They cited a human hair and palm print found on the explosives that belonged to someone else, even though Reid insisted he acted alone.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said the government would not retreat from its assertions.

"Richard Reid, like any defendant, is free to plead guilty to criminal charges," Ashcroft said.

But, he stressed, "the Justice Department has not entered into any plea agreement with Reid."

And, he added, "the Justice Department stands by each and every allegation in the indictment. We are prepared to substantiate all of the charges at the hearing."

A Department of Justice official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said both the U.S. attorney's office in Boston and Justice Department headquarters in Washington were stunned that Reid was willing to plead guilty to all eight counts in the indictment--especially since it could bring an automatic sentence of life in prison.

"We were surprised by this," the official said. "We had no forewarning."

Reid, in statements he allegedly made to FBI agents after his arrest, said that he was angry over the U.S. war in Afghanistan. He also hoped that the plane explosion would scare Americans away from air travel, and damage the U.S. economy.

"What I am doing is part of the ongoing war between Islam and disbelief," he wrote in an e-mail to his mother two days before the flight.

Reid also was upset over the treatment of Muslims in Israel. He allegedly told the FBI after his arrest that he had traveled to Jerusalem in June 2001 and became bitter when he saw "Jews with guns" at an Arab mosque there.

"America is the problem," he allegedly told his FBI interrogators. "Without America, there would be no Israel."

There also was seeming contradiction about his statement Wednesday that he wanted to plead guilty to spare his family from unwanted publicity. According to the FBI, once he was arrested and removed from the plane when it was diverted to Boston, he immediately wanted to know where the reporters were.

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