ALEXANDRIA, Va. – The U.S. government's case against Zacarias Moussaoui took another bizarre turn Thursday as the accused Sept. 11 terrorist told a federal judge that he wanted to plead guilty to four of the six charges against him — and then abruptly withdrew his guilty plea after arguing with the judge.
"You want to link me to certain facts that will guarantee my death," the French-Moroccan charged with conspiring to kill and maim thousands of Americans told U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, as he withdrew a plea he tried to make an hour earlier.
Moussaoui sparred with the judge as she grilled him on whether he was actually admitting he was guilty of the specific charges against him, some of which could result in the death penalty.
"At this point I do not believe you are prepared to make a guilty plea because you are not prepared to admit the essence of the conspiracy," U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said after Moussaoui tried to plead guilty to the first charge in his indictment — conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism.
Moussaoui, the lone person charged with conspiring with the Sept. 11 hijackers, balked when the judge asked him directly if he had joined with members of Al Qaeda in a plan to seize aircraft.
"I want a recess," he said, and the judge granted it. When Moussaoui returned, he said he wanted to withdraw his guilty plea.
The judge then ended the hearing and told the government that if the case continues to trial, she will not allow prosecutors to mention Moussaoui had tried to plead guilty.
"There was no guilty plea," Brinkema said before adjourning Moussaoui's stormy arraignment appearance.
Early in the proceeding, Moussaoui told the judge:
"Today I truthfully will enter on some of the charges — not all — a plea of guilty.
"It should not be misunderstood that I endorse the entire indictment. There is enough factual basis for me to plead guilty in a truthful manner," he said.
Moussaoui told the court he intended to plead guilty to the first four charges in the indictment against him — conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, aircraft piracy, aircraft destruction and using weapons of mass destruction.
But the only man charged in the Sept. 11 terror attacks said he was not pleading to the last two charges — attempting to murder government employees and attempting to destroy property.
"I want to plead only for what I did, not for what they say I did," he said.
Before Moussaoui made his statements, Brinkema rejected a request by Moussaoui's court-appointed attorneys to delay Thursday's arraignment and to order a full-scale mental evaluation.
The lawyers, whom Moussaoui fired, argued that Moussaoui is mentally ill and unable to represent himself, citing as evidence more than a hundred handwritten court briefs that Moussaoui has made — some making wild allegations.
The judge rejected the request, saying that Moussaoui's "pleadings are somewhat confrontational and somewhat unusual ... but they do not give the court any basis to assume that the defendant is not competent."
Brinkema noted that Moussaoui "obviously understood the court's admonition" to stop filing repetitive motions. The court "did not receive a filing from him in a week. That's a record," she quipped.
At one point, Brinkema asked Moussaoui to take an oath. He had repeatedly objected to swearing on a Christian bible, so she permitted him to make an amended oath.
"In the name of Allah ... I will tell the truth to the best of my ability," Moussaoui swore.
He appeared with a beard and in traditional green prison jumpsuit, flanked by two U.S. marshals. Moussaoui's mother, Aicha el-Wafi, traveled from France and sat in the audience.
Brinkema noted that the mother had written the court urging that her son's guilty pleas not be permitted.
Brinkema had sent a letter to Moussaoui noting that she had asked the government to outline the facts of the case against him. She asked him if he had seen the letter and agreed with the government's facts.
"If I were to agree to all their facts, I would not only plead guilty but guilty for the death penalty," he responded.
Moussaoui said the government has not allowed him to tell what he knows to a grand jury and that he wanted to use Thursday's court session to divulge what he knew about Sept. 11.
Moussaoui said the crux of the case against him is "whether I came to the U.S. to commit acts of terrorism. ... That's what I want to talk to U.S. people, Americans, who are my enemies."
U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty had argued that Moussaoui was competent to make his own plea and that his defense lawyers' request was "an attempt to add an artificial barrier to the defendant's clear intent to plead guilty."
Moussaoui said in court last week that he wanted to plead guilty, but his plea was rejected by Brinkema, who said she was giving the defendant a week to think about it. But Moussaoui insisted he would return to court and enter a guilty plea.
"Bet on me I will," he said.
Moussaoui last week admitted he was a member of Al Qaeda, but in the past he has denied aiding the hijackers. Brinkema told him he could not plead guilty if he continued to deny his personal role.
The only individual charged in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, Moussaoui said he had information about the conspiracy that he believed would save his life in a penalty phase of the case. The Bush administration has said it would seek his execution if Moussaoui is found guilty.
Frank Dunham Jr., the lead defense lawyer, said Wednesday that a report from defense mental health experts reinforced their earlier view of Moussaoui's illness.
That report concluded there was "reasonable cause to believe that this defendant suffers from a psychotic mental disease or defect and has been exibiting marked deterioration in his mental state since he was permitted to proceed" as his own lawyer.
Dunham said the experts need more time to determine whether Moussaoui is legally competent to proceed. Brinkema disagreed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.