WASHINGTON – The public defender chosen to represent Zacaria Moussaoui, indicted for conspiracy in the Sept. 11 attacks, says he believes most Americans realize Moussaoui is entitled to a vigorous defense.
"It's obviously an extremely important case and that's what I do -- I'm a defense attorney," said Gerald Zerkin, a public defender in Richmond, Va., appointed by a federal judge to be Moussaoui's lawyer at his trial. "I'm proud to handle this case as well."
Moussaoui, 33, was indicted by a federal grand jury Tuesday on six conspiracy counts alleging that he worked in concert with Osama bin Laden and the 19 hijackers to carry out the suicide attacks.
Four of the six counts carry the death penalty if Moussaoui is convicted.
An expert in capital punishment cases, Zerkin has represented death row prisoners in Virginia since 1980, including Earl Washington Jr., a mentally retarded man who was pardoned by Gov. Jim Gilmore after spending over a decade on death row.
Zerkin said the Moussaoui case will be bigger than any he's ever taken on.
"Anyone would say this case is more challenging than any they've done. It's not just local. It covers a wide geographic area in terms of what the government is alleging," Zerkin said in a telephone interview.
A federal judge on Thursday ordered Moussaoui to be sent to Virginia from New York, where he had been held as a material witness. He is scheduled to be arraigned in federal court in Alexandria, Va., on Jan. 2.
His New York-based court appointed lawyer has vowed to contest his removal.
The trial, which will take place in Alexandria, promises to be one of the most closely watched cases in recent memory and has already sparked safety concerns.
"This will make the Timothy McVeigh case look like kindergarten," said Drew Wade, spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service, responsible for security at the courthouse. Timothy McVeigh was convicted and executed for the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people.
Zerkin said he does not fear for his personal safety.
Lawyers familiar with Zerkin say he's well-suited for the job.
"Jerry Zerkin is one of Virginia's most experienced and competent attorneys for representing individuals charged with the death penalty," said Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia. He has known Zerkin since the early 1980s.
"He won't let the fact that this is an unpopular case interfere with his ability to represent Mr. Moussaoui," Willis said.
Zerkin will handle the case with court-appointed co-counsel Edward MacMahon, a Middleburg, Va., attorney in private practice.
MacMahon was among six candidates recommended for a U.S. attorney's post in eastern Virginia this year. Sens. John Warner and George Allen forwarded MacMahon's name to the White House for the job, which was eventually filled by Paul McNulty, whose office is prosecuting Moussaoui.
MacMahon contributed $2,000 to George W. Bush's presidential campaign and MacMahon belongs to the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club near Washington, whose membership list includes Bush's father.
MacMahon was out of town Thursday, his office said.
Zerkin and MacMahon could also receive help from a French lawyer. Paris attorney Isabelle Coutant-Peyre said she would defend Moussaoui's rights as a French citizen, trying to protect him from the possibility of the death penalty, which France opposes.
The French government said Wednesday that it would object to the death penalty for Moussaoui, and Justice Minister Marylise Lebranchu said France would provide him consular protection, meaning it would work to assure he has a fair trial according to French standards.