ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Zacarias Moussaoui is competent to act as his own lawyer, a federal judge ruled Thursday, as the accused "20th hijacker" denied in court that he had been in contact with the Sept. 11 hijackers and said he had secret information that would set him free.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, in granting Moussaoui's request to represent himself, said his decision was "unwise but rational," adding that she agreed with a court-appointed psychiatrist that Moussaoui was mentally competent to make the decision.
Moussaoui, who on Thursday won the right to represent himself at trial, kept inching his way to a dramatic conclusion of the hearing by repeatedly pleading for "ten minutes, five minutes, two minutes" to explain why "the government will be compelled to withdraw the case today."
Government prosecutors believe Moussaoui may have been training as the 20th hijacker, but he told Brinkema the government "knew I was not in contact with these people who had done the hijacking."
Moussaoui's public defender, Frank Dunham, said Friday on The Early Show on CBS that his decision to defend himself will hurt his case.
"It's very difficult in this case for a defendant to represent himself successfully, given the fact that he's not cleared to receive classified information," Dunham said. "So even if ... he were Clarence Darrow, Johnnie Cochran and Edward Bennett Williams all wrapped into one, he couldn't be able to effectively defend himself in this case."
Moussaoui was arrested Aug. 16 in Minnesota after officials at a flight school became suspicious of his conduct as a student.
Speaking in accented but clear English, the French citizen made reference to secret information he said could be helpful to his cause. He said the U.S. government "knew who I was when I entered the United States of America" because of information learned after British authorities raided his former address in London in 1998.
He did not explain what information the U.S. government had — and how it might prove his innocence. Government lawyers did not respond to those statements.
The government has said it will seek the death penalty if Moussaoui is convicted on charges that he conspired to commit terrorism, aircraft piracy and destruction of aircraft, use weapons of mass destruction, murder U.S. government employees and destroy property.
Even though Brinkema accepted his plea to represent himself, the judge told Moussaoui's court appointed defense team to remain in the case for now to assist him. Moussaoui has accused those lawyers of conspiring to have him executed.
"It's not fair to him," to keep lawyers in the case under these circumstances, Dunham said after the hearing. Dunham said he believed that Moussaoui was not behaving rationally, but he failed in an attempt to get the judge to delay a ruling on legal representation until additional mental tests could be conducted.
"If you're trying to figure out anything he said in court, you are wasting your time," he said.
Moussaoui, wearing a green prison jumpsuit with the word "prisoner" on the back, was seated alone to the right of his lawyers. For more than an hour, he stood at the lawyers' lectern facing the judge, answering her questions as she inquired about his desire to represent himself.
Brinkema warned him that he would not have access to classified information in the case, and Moussaoui responded that he understood.
The court-appointed lawyers do have clearance to receive the reams of classified documents in the case.
Moussaoui's mother, Aicha el-Wafi, her head covered with a black scarf, sat in the second row next to a lawyer, Randall B. Hamud, whom she hired to assist her son. Moussaoui had refused to cooperate with the attorney but said he was seeking assistance from another Muslim lawyer who visited him in jail and offered to represent him for no fee.
Moussaoui said he wouldn't name the attorney because "to defend Mr. Moussaoui would be a bit dangerous." Brinkema said the attorney would have to meet requirements for admission and may not have access to classified information.
When she told Moussaoui that his mother had hired a lawyer Moussaoui said: "She's a mother and she wants to help her son to the best of her ability. I think everybody can understand. I would prefer to have my own choice." Government lawyers said they preferred that the court appointed attorneys remain in the case in part because of their access to the classified material.
Before the judge concluded that Moussaoui was mentally fit to be his own lawyer, she asked him if he understood that four of the six counts against him carry the death penalty, Moussaoui responded: "I understand fully the gravity of the charge."
Asked whether he understood that an alternative sentence was life imprisonment without parole, Moussaoui said: "I will never see the light again, I understand this."
Moussaoui added that he wanted to represent himself because "I do not wish to entrust my life to someone else."
Near the end of the hearing, Moussaoui asked Brinkema if she had the authority "to release me today." When the judge responded that he could make a motion for release from confinement, Moussaoui immediately asked for a pen and paper to write the request in the courtroom. The judge did not allow him to do so.
His mother told reporters it was the first time she'd seen Moussaoui in five years and said he looked "thin and tired." She said she was hoping to visit her son in jail. He is being confined at the Alexandria Detention Center here.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.