ALEXANDRIA, Va. – A court of law has silenced Zacarias Moussaoui, the accused Sept. 11 conspirator, in the court of public opinion.
Moussaoui's court pleadings, which recently included demands to euthanize a defense lawyer, place a curse on the judge and exterminate Jews in Israel, will no longer be made public.
In taking away Moussaoui's worldwide audience, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said his pleadings were filled with "irrelevant, inflammatory and insulting" language.
She also agreed with the government's concern that Moussaoui, an acknowledged member of Al Qaeda, could be sending coded messages to terrorists. Her decision was made last week and disclosed Thursday.
"I have never heard of motions being sealed because they're insulting to the court," said Lawrence Goldman, a New York City attorney and president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "But if there was a legitimate fear he was communicating in code ... that would be a legitimate reason."
Moussaoui, who lived and attended school in Norman, Okla., has been able to file motions with political diatribes because he's acting as his own lawyer, and such defendants get more leeway than lawyers who must follow strict rules of procedure.
He has mixed his rhetoric with standard requests, recently winning access to an Internet site maintained by court-appointed "standby" lawyers. He also persuaded Brinkema to order prosecutors to consult with him on the handling of documents with sensitive government information.
Brinkema's order applies to pleadings "containing threats, racial slurs, calls to action, or other irrelevant and inappropriate language" -- but that would apply to almost all of Moussaoui's motions.
She also said she could revoke Moussaoui's right to represent himself against charges that he conspired with the 19 hijackers to commit terrorism. The government said it would seek the death penalty.
"She's laying the groundwork for removing him as pro se (self-represented) counsel," predicted Robert Precht, an assistant dean at University of Michigan law school who represented a defendant in the first World Trade Center bombing case.
"If she cut him off earlier he could say she denied him the right to represent himself. By allowing him this room and time to disobey her orders and file motions with inflammatory language, she is creating an unimpeachable record for taking away his right to represent himself. She will be on very firm ground."
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said keeping the motions secret was distressing.
"The public should be able to see what he's really like," she said. "If he's a typical terrorist it's really important to see how his mind works. I'm concerned the public is going to get a sanitized view of what is going on at the court.
"I certainly don't envy Judge Brinkema in having to manage this guy."
The government and Moussaoui's "standby" lawyers, who were appointed by the judge to take over the defense if she orders it, have cited cases that concluded a defendant does not have an unlimited right to flout courtroom procedure.
One government motion asserted, "Courts may terminate the right to self-representation if the defendant is not able or willing to abide by the rules of procedure or courtroom protocol."
"Maybe she's a person of good character who demonstrated considerable patience and has a real problem on her hands, and maybe we should be sympathetic," said Ronald Allen, a law professor at Northwestern University. "She could just reject them (the motions). There's no requirement the court should accept pleadings in inappropriate form."
Allen agreed with the government that Moussaoui should not use the courts for an end-run around his strict rules of confinement. Moussaoui is prohibited from communicating with the outside world under those rules.
"I suppose if there is some conspiracy to blow up the White House that can only be triggered by Moussaoui saying a certain sentence, would you say the public right to know applies to that? No one would say that. That's madness."
Former federal prosecutor Sean O'Shea, now in private practice in New York City, said, "It sounds like she's been very patient with him. I think an appellate court will be very understanding with what she's trying to do.
"If he's using this as a soapbox to make wild accusations and speeches, that's not what the courts are for. They're there to have a fair trial."