ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Zacarias Moussaoui, the French-Moroccan charged with conspiring to kill and maim thousands of people in America on Sept. 11, stood before a federal judge at his arraignment here Wednesday morning and said:
"In the name of Allah, I do not have anything to plead. I enter no plea. Thank you very much."
The bearded, balding 33-year-old wore a dark green jumpsuit with the word "prisoner" on the back at his arraignment a few miles from where a jetliner crashed into the Pentagon. He is charged with six counts of conspiracy in the terror attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center; four of those counts could result in the death penalty.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema listened as Moussaoui, the first person directly charged in the Sept. 11 attacks, refused to enter his plea, then she said she took that to mean he was pleading innocent to the charges.
The alleged "20th hijacker" remained silent, but one of his lawyers, Frank Dunham, answered, "Yes." The judge then entered an innocent plea into the court record.
Brinkema set a March 29 deadline for prosecutors to decide whether they would seek the death penalty, and ordered jury selection to begin Sept. 30, but the Oct. 14 trial date she originally scheduled was changed when she was told that was Columbus Day. Instead, she ordered the trial to start approximately two weeks after jury selection begins, meaning mid-October.
The judge rejected defense arguments that the trial date would be too close to the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and the vast amount of news coverage that could be expected at that time.
Brinkema said she was confident both sides could find an excellent jury in northern Virginia, even though the courthouse is close to the Pentagon.
"It was surprising to me how few people from the northern Virginia pool knew anybody" killed or injured on Sept. 11, the judge said.
Moussaoui did not speak to his lawyers, and spent much of the hearing seated with one hand lightly resting on his chin. He kept a wrinkled brown piece of paper in front of him.
The two sides debated the trial date.
Defense lawyer Gerald Zerkin told Brinkema that "the need to be further away from Sept. 11 is obvious."
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Spencer said news about the attacks "is going to have to be dealt with by the court no matter when" the trial begins.
Zerkin argued for a trial date in early 2003, saying the three defense attorneys — two of whom are public defenders appointed by the court — are facing a vast indictment that is international in scope and lists events in several European countries.
He said the defense team will need security clearances, interpreters for Arabic documents and to bone up on the history of Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network and the principles of Islam.
"We simply cannot prepare a case in that amount of time," Zerkin argued.
But Brinkema chose the government's suggested trial date, saying news reports about the one-year anniversary will have waned by mid-October. "I think the date suggested by the government does clear that adequately," she said.
Federal marshals had brought Moussaoui to the courthouse nearly four hours before the scheduled arraignment.
At least a dozen U.S. marshals were in the same courtroom on Dec. 19 when Moussaoui, who had just been transferred from detention in New York, appeared before a federal magistrate to hear the charges against him. Security personnel also ringed the federal court building.
Moussaoui's mother, Aicha el-Wafi, came to the United States from France last week and said her son told her he could prove his innocence. She didn't appear in the courtroom Wednesday
The defendant, 33, is a French citizen of Moroccan descent who received a master's degree in England.
Although Moussaoui has been in federal custody on immigration charges since August, when he aroused suspicions at a Minnesota flight school, the indictment says he conspired with the Sept. 11 hijackers to kill and maim victims in the United States. While accusing him of links to Al Qaeda, the indictment does not explain his role in the terror attacks.
Nonetheless, Attorney General John Ashcroft called Moussaoui an active participant with the 19 hijackers who crashed four jetliners in New York, Washington and western Pennsylvania, killing more than 3,000 people.
Same Activities as Hijackers
The indictment accuses Moussaoui of pursuing some of the same activities as the hijackers by taking flight training in the United States, inquiring about crop dusting and purchasing flight deck training videos.
Moussaoui received money in July and August from Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, an alleged member of a German terrorist cell who was a roommate of Mohammed Atta, the suspected ringleader in the attacks, the indictment charges. The FBI contends Bin al-Shibh may have been planning to be the 20th hijacker.
The indictment alleges that Moussaoui was present at the Al Qaeda-affiliated Khalden Camp in Afghanistan. By the end of September 2000, he was making parallel moves to some of the hijackers with his flight lessons, crop-dusting interest and training video purchases.
A clear indication of the case's importance was Senate passage of legislation to broadcast the trial on closed-circuit television in the cities most affected by the hijackings.
The House has not acted on the measure, which is modeled on a similar privilege granted to Oklahoma City bombing victims and families.
Cameras usually are not permitted in federal courtrooms, but Court TV has challenged the rule as unconstitutional and filed a motion to broadcast the proceedings. Brinkema set a Jan. 9 hearing for Court TV's motion and gave the prosecution and defense until Friday to make their positions known.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.