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Moussaoui Tries to Enter Guilty Plea

Aired July 18, 2002 - 13:42   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news now. I understand concerning Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged so far with the September 11 attacks.

We are going to go to Alexandria, Virginia where Deborah Feyerick is standing by -- Deb, what can you tell us?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kyra, a big surprise in court today. Zacarias Moussaoui tried entering a plea of guilty. The judge refused to accept that plea, saying instead, I will give you one week to think about this. If, in fact, in a week, you want to plead guilty, then I will accept that plea. She asked the government, the government said that yes, they too will accept that plea.

Now Zacarias Moussaoui was clearly upset and very, very frustrated. He kept trying to make points to the judge, and the judge kept quieting him. Initially he -- when he said that he wanted to enter a particular plea, the judge had entered a not guilty plea for him. He said this is not what I want to do, this is not the plea that I want to enter. I want to enter a not guilty plea.

Now, as he was saying this, he really just blurted out, I am a member of al Qaeda. I swore an oath of allegiance, the bayat, to Osama bin Laden. He said that he knew details about 9-1-1. He said, I know exactly who did it, I know which group it was, I know how it was decided. The judge said, Stop. All of this can be used against if you if this goes to trial. You have to wait. If there is a plea bargain to be made, then it has got to be made by your lawyers and the government, but right now, Mr. Moussaoui, you cannot continue saying this.

Zacarias Moussaoui was clearly very, very upset, continuing to try to talk, but the judge really silenced him and then said, Court is in recess. We are out, we are leaving. She got up to stand, Zacarias also stood up to stand, but again, he is trying to enter a plea. And the judge tried to make it very clear to him that look, you cannot just plead guilty to pieces of what the government has charged you with. If you are going to plead guilty, then you have to plead guilty to each and every count that is against you. That is -- it is not clear whether Zacarias Moussaoui understands all that, and that is what the judge is looking at.

PHILLIPS: Deborah Feyerick from Alexandria, Virginia. Amazing. I mean, this is just -- this is so surprising. I'm taking notes here, because obviously we are going to talk about this a lot more in the next hour. But, does this surprise -- I guess it is not really surprising, because his whole mental state has been in question right now, right, Deb?

FEYERICK: Well, there is no question about that, and I apologize if I am a little out of breath. I ran down the stairs to try to get here, but anyway, yes. His mental status has been in question. First time, he refused to enter a plea. Second time, he tried to enter a plea of no contest. Now he is entering a plea of guilty. So it has always been a wild card as to what he is going to do when he gets in front of that judge.

But again, this is explosive because he is trying to enter this guilty plea, but he only wants to plead guilty to certain things. That is, I'm a member of al Qaeda, I swore an oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden, I know details about 9/11. But the government has said, or alleged in its indictment, You know more than details, you know exactly what happened. You took part in that, or you were planning to take part in that, and all of these acts that you were conspiring would have lead to the deaths of thousands of people, as is what happened with the 9/11 attacks.

PHILLIPS: Deb, can he be forced to -- he has said that he -- he wants to represent himself, doesn't want to deal with an attorney.

Can the judge force him to deal with an attorney because this is getting a little bit out of control?

FEYERICK: It is definitely a little out of control. And you really do get that feeling as you are sitting in the courtroom. The judge has standby counsel for him. Those are the lawyers who were initially representing him. However, he said, Those lawyers are trying to kill me, I want nothing to do with them. The judge, however, said, Well, they are going to be there, and in case something does happen, then they will be the ones to step in.

But again, Moussaoui very passionate about not having these particular lawyers represent him. He wanted his own Muslim lawyer to represent him, but the Muslim lawyer refused to play by the rules. He would not register formally with the court, he would not make an appearance. He would not even hook up with a Virginia law firm. He is from Texas, the lawyer. And the judge said, You can't do that. If you are going to play, play by the rules. And that lawyer said no.

So again, there is a big possibility that at some point, Moussaoui may not be able to represent himself, and as a matter of fact, the judge said to him today, I am putting you on notice, If you continue effectively -- she didn't use this word -- but these shenanigans, then she is going to have no choice but to do that. But to make sure that his standby counsel who is representing him.

The big question now is whether standby counsel would get together with the U.S. attorneys and make the decision, that Yes, they are ready to plea bargain.

PHILLIPS: Putting you on notice. What does that mean? What happens to him now?

FEYERICK: That basically means, if he continues to behave this way, and if he decides within a week that he is not going to plead guilty, she is not going to let him represent himself if he continues speaking up in court, and the one thing that I noticed this time, which has not been clearly apparent during the other court hearings, and that is he was very, very upset. At one point he was shaking his head, at another point he was shaking his finger at the judge like this. He was clearly frustrated because he wanted to make his point, and he kept saying to the judge, you know, you have got to let me speak. You have got to let me speak, and the judge said, effectively, No, I don't, and that's when she really put him on notice.

PHILLIPS: Deborah Feyerick, thank you so much.

We have got our Jeffrey Toobin now with us, live from New York, our CNN legal analyst. Boy, Jeffrey. This is...


PHILLIPS: Yes, very weird. Very strange. First of all, let's talk about what happened here, the fact that he just stood up and he blurted out, I'm a member of al Qaeda, I know who committed these attacks.

Of course, everybody is wanting to hear, probably, what he has to say, but in a court of law, it has got to be a lot more tame than this. Legally, what has to happen now?

TOOBIN: Well, it is an awfully confusing situation, because the judge was certainly right to try to stop him, because this kind of statement, as she said in court, could be used against him, and he has to be made aware of how damaging that could be to his interests. But the problem is that he has refused to -- he has refused a lawyer. There has to be some sort of orderly negotiation between the government, and perhaps Moussaoui himself. Perhaps they will just have a meeting outside of court, but the judge is clearly right that you can't simply blurt out this kind of thing in court.

So I think -- it seems inevitable, at this point, given what he said, that there will be some kind of guilty plea in this case. You can't very well go to trial after essentially admitting to the whole indictment in open court. But how this plays out, and how it impacts on the death penalty, remains kind of a mystery.

PHILLIPS: And I asked Deb this. Tell me, can the judge say, OK, that's it. You are just not competent to represent yourself, this is getting out of hand, this is getting crazy. You have to deal with a lawyer. From now on, we are going to hear from your lawyer, and not you.

TOOBIN: Well, the judge can do that, but only if she finds that he is mentally unfit to defend himself.

PHILLIPS: How do you prove that? How do you find him mentally unfit? I mean, blurting out in the middle of the courtroom and screaming this...

TOOBIN: Well, it's not -- it's not evidence of mental -- of insanity to plead guilty. I mean, a lot of people plead guilty all the time. He has -- there have been attempts made in this case -- the judge has tried to have a psychiatric evaluation. As I understand it, Moussaoui has refused to cooperate with the forensic psychiatrist who had been appointed. So there hasn't been the grounds at this point to -- to name someone -- to find him insane, or unfit to stand trial.

I expect that will certainly come back as a consideration in this case. The judge will once again try to get a mental evaluation of Moussaoui. But she -- if he is mentally fit, he has the right, as the United States Supreme Court has said, to represent himself in court, and there is nothing the judge can do about it.

PHILLIPS: Can she make him take a psychiatric evaluation? Can she order that, and say you have to do this?

TOOBIN: Not really, because what is the remedy?


TOOBIN: You know, this is a guy who is trying to plead guilty. What can she do to him to force him to answer the psychiatrist's questions. He is already in jail. There really is no way of finding this. I suppose she could say, based on what I have seen, without a psychiatric evaluation, I am finding you unfit to represent yourself, and then appoint a lawyer for him. But, you know, this is -- I have to say, somewhat uncharted ground here.


TOOBIN: And so, she is obviously trying to improvise as she goes along.

PHILLIPS: All right. So, Jeffrey, let's say -- she also made the point, Deb was saying, that the judge said OK, if you are going to plead guilty, you have to plead guilty on all counts, not just a few counts.

So let's say he says OK, I am going to plead guilty on all counts. What could happen to him?

TOOBIN: Well, you know, I would like to be the shell (ph) answer man for you here, but I'm trying to figure it out. The issue is the death penalty. When, obviously, if he plead guilty to the indictment, he certainly could be sentenced to life without parole. And again, people plead guilty to the indictment -- to indictments all the time, and they certainly have a right to do that.

The question here is, there has, of course, been no jury picked in this case. Does he get to avoid the possibility of the death penalty simply by pleading guilty at this early stage? Remember, the Supreme Court last month held that it has to be a jury, not a judge, that makes all the findings relevant to the death penalty. It may be that the prosecution says, We are not accepting a guilty plea in this case until a jury is seated because we want to get -- we want to see the death penalty. I have to say, this is such an unusual circumstance that I don't think anyone knows exactly how that would play out legally.

PHILLIPS: And you know what, thinking about the death penalty, that is probably something that doesn't even bother him, because this is an individual who dies for his cause. I mean, that's the belief. So I wouldn't think the death penalty means anything to him.

TOOBIN: That's just it. I mean, when I was talking about this case with Paula Zahn this morning, I was saying it reminded me of what is sometimes known as suicide by cop, where suspects sort of arrange to be shot by the police. Here it almost seems that Moussaoui is trying to join the 19 other so-called martyrs of September 11, so that he will be executed. That seems to be what he is aiming for here. The system hasn't accommodated him so far, but it may well yet.

PHILLIPS: Well, Jeffrey Toobin, our CNN legal analyst, I'm glad we are all confused together, it makes me feel a lot better.

TOOBIN: Glad I'm doing my job.

PHILLIPS: Absolutely. Making the confusion even better. No, we will talk again in the 2:00 hour, Jeffrey.


PHILLIPS: Thanks so much. We will see what happens between now and then.

TOOBIN: All right.




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