Moussaoui Could Face Death Penalty

Zacarias Moussaoui (search) asked for nothing in exchange for pleading guilty to a role in a terrorist conspiracy that includes the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, an admission that could bring the death penalty, federal officials said.

Moussaoui's unusual intention to plead guilty to a six-count indictment without striking any kind of deal about his sentence is the latest twist in a bizarre, 3½ year-old legal drama.

After meeting with the French citizen Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema (search ) ruled that Moussaoui, the only person indicted in the United States in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, was fit to enter a plea. She scheduled a hearing Friday in Alexandria, Va., federal court.

"The court finds that the defendant is fully competent to plead guilty to the indictment," Brinkema said in a brief order.

Click here for the Moussaoui case history (FindLaw).

The mercurial Moussaoui still could change his mind, which he did once before after saying he wanted to plead guilty. He has fought with and insulted the judge, his own lawyers and prosecutors but also has had some surprising legal victories.

The government has charged Moussaoui with being part of an Al Qaeda (search) conspiracy to commit terrorism that included the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people.

The indictment accuses Moussaoui of conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, commit aircraft piracy, destroy aircraft, murder government employees and destroy property. The first four charges carry a maximum sentence of death.

Moussaoui has acknowledged he is an Al Qaeda member and has pledged his allegiance to terrorist leader Usama bin Laden (search). However, he has consistently denied any specific involvement in the Sept. 11 plot.

Moussaoui attorney Frank Dunham Jr. said he would not comment. The New York Times quoted the lawyer as saying Moussaoui told the judge and prosecutors in a letter that he wanted to be sentenced to death. Dunham told the newspaper that the defense team would file a motion Thursday challenging Moussaoui's mental fitness and his ability to understand the charges.

Moussaoui's lawyers opposed his first attempt to plead guilty in 2002, which he later withdrew, and have fought to remove the death penalty as a possible sentence.

Moussaoui's sentence would be determined in a separate legal proceeding that would follow any plea. Federal prosecutors plan to pursue the death penalty at that time, a government official said, adding that the government made no concessions. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the judge has ordered both sides not to discuss the case publicly.

Despite Brinkema's ruling Wednesday, several lawyers said Moussaoui's decision only underscores questions about his competence. They recalled his first attempt to plead guilty, a hearing marked by confusing statements and contentious exchanges with the judge.

"I think his competence is in doubt here," said Peter Margulies, a law professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. "What is he going to say now that will be different?"

The case has been characterized by delays, protracted arguments over access to Al Qaeda members in U.S. custody and erratic, belligerent communications from Moussaoui himself.

Moussaoui's lawyers still could attempt to appeal on their client's behalf, even though a defendant typically waives his right to appeal when he enters a plea, Margulies said.

Moussaoui was in U.S. custody on Sept. 11, 2001, having been arrested the previous month after arousing suspicions at a Minnesota flight school.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (search), the purported Sept. 11 mastermind, considered replacing the pilot of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania with Moussaoui, according to the Sept. 11 commission report. Mohammed, however, has told his interrogators that Moussaoui actually was being considered for a second wave of attacks still in the early planning stages.

The trial has been delayed three times. Last month, the Supreme Court declined to review an appeals court ruling denying Moussaoui direct access to Mohammed and two other Al Qaeda witnesses, who he said might support his contention that he was not involved with the Sept. 11 planning. The court also allowed the government to seek the death penalty.

In his handwritten filings, Moussaoui has railed against the U.S. government, Brinkema and his lawyers. In 2003, Brinkema stripped him of his right to defend himself, saying his legal filings "include contemptuous language that would never be tolerated from an attorney and will no longer be tolerated from this defendant."