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Moussaoui Calmer in Courtroom, Pleads Guilty to Some Charges

Aired July 25, 2002 - 14:02   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: The only person accused so far in the September 11 attacks is pleading guilty, but only to some of the charges. It happened within the past half hour, just moments after a judge ruled that Zacarias Moussaoui is competent to act as his own attorney.
CNN's Deborah Feyerick is just outside the courtroom, joins us with more -- Deb.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kyra, Zacarias Moussaoui said that it is easy for him to plead guilty to 90 percent of the indictment. He says that he wants to tell the people of America what he knows about al Qaeda. Then he went on to plead guilty to four of the six counts against him, including conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy, conspiracy to destroy aircraft, and conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. That is the planes that were turned, essentially into flying missiles during the 9/11 attacks.

What he said he was not pleading guilty to was conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals, and he is not pleading guilt to conspiracy to destroy property. Now, he said that he wanted to get before a jury of 12 Americans. He said, They are my enemies, but in every country, there are honest enemies. He is convinced that if he tells those people what he knows about al Qaeda, and about this conspiracy, that, in fact, they will rule that he should not get the death penalty.

The judge right now is going over each of the counts that he is pleading guilty to. She still has the prerogative not to accept these guilty pleas if, in fact, she does not believe that Moussaoui is telling the truth about his alleged involvement according to the indictment. As for counts five and six, not clear there whether there is going to mini trial on those counts -- I shouldn't even call it a mini trial, it is going to be a big trial, because counts five and six, obviously, very serious.

Now, his mother was in court today, and the judge said that the mother had told the judge not to accept a guilty plea from her son today until he could be evaluated to see whether he was psychiatrically competent to represent himself. The judge said, Yes, he has shown judgment. For example, she said, Last week, I told him to stop filing motions or I would refuse to allow him to act as his own lawyer, and she said he understood that, and miraculously, for a whole week, he did not file any motions.

The judge saying that is clear indication that he knows how to follow these instructions. This is going to be a lengthy process as the judge goes through all of these charges, these allegations. The prosecutors are sitting there with very thick volumes of legal definitions and law just to make sure that everything is legitimate, that all of this is accepted. In the front row is the U.S. attorney for this district, Paul McNulty. He is listening very eagerly to what Moussaoui has to say. Moussaoui saying it to a very packed courtroom -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right, Deb. Last week, of course, when he came out and surprised us all, blurting out that he was guilty of certain things. How has he been today? Is he more calm?

FEYERICK: He's definitely more calm. His beard, by the way, you see those pictures of him with a very tight-cropped beard. In fact, right now, his is very long, and is very bushy. What was interesting is last week, he was very aggravated with the judge. He was snapping at her. He was very confrontational. He was looking for a fight. That was not the case this time. The judge spoke. The judge even said, Last week, I tried to explain something to you and you cut me off. He was more quiet, a bit more subdued.

Interestingly, though -- you know, the judge walks in first. That's not usually how it happens. When -- Moussaoui refuses to stand when she enters the courtroom, so she gets in first to avoid that whole issue. But when she did call him up to the lectern to ask him some questions, he basically refused to go for about 20 seconds, and that doesn't seem like a long time Kyra, but when a judge tells you to get up to the microphone, you see him just shuffling through these papers, unclear whether he was trying to make a point there, but he at least kept her waiting for a certain amount of time.

PHILLIPS: Deborah Feyerick, thank you. Let's bring in our legal analyst now, Jeffrey Toobin, to talk a little bit more about this. Jeffrey, hello again.


PHILLIPS: All right. He's pleading guilty to four of the six charges. I thought if you plead guilty, you have to plead to all of the charges.

TOOBIN: No. In fact that's -- what is usually the case is that you only plead to one count of the indictment, and in a plea bargain the government agrees to dismiss the remaining counts. That's almost always how it works in a plea bargain. Here, there is the unusual circumstance of no plea bargain in effect, so the question is what happens to the last two counts in the indictment. As a technical legal matter, he would have to face trial on those two counts alone.

It's hard to think that that makes much sense, because the conduct charge is almost identical to the charges he pled guilty to. The government may simply agree to dismiss those two counts on their own motion, and then just go forward with the penalty phase before a jury, because it now appears likely that there will be a penalty phase where Moussaoui faces a jury that decides whether he serves life in prison or is executed. PHILLIPS: All right. Now, it says here he's not pleading to the charges accusing him of attempted murder, and attempting to destroy property. Do you think he has got a strategy here?

TOOBIN: Well...

PHILLIPS: Or is he not capable of that?

TOOBIN: You know, I don't think he's insane. I mean, I think the judge is right, that he obviously has some understanding of the charges against him. I cannot fathom in my own mind how you draw a distinction between counts four and five, and counts one through four. The conduct charge is virtually identical, so I don't really see the distinction, and far be it for me to read Moussaoui's mind.

The question is, what happens to these two counts. I don't know at this point, and I am sure the prosecutors are listening and trying to figure it out as we speak.

PHILLIPS: What do you think the options are for Moussaoui's defense attorneys now?

TOOBIN: Well, I think they don't really have any options any more, once the guilty plea is accepted. The only option they have is trying to assist him in avoiding execution. He now -- the whole focus of the case now would turn to jury selection, and then a mini trial on the question of what his penalty would be.

Remember, these lawyers have been fired. They are -- they haven't met with Moussaoui, they are not talking to him. Everything they have done so far is just on their own efforts to try to help him out. Moussaoui apparently wants nothing to do with them, and won't even speak with them.

PHILLIPS: And he returns all their mail and doesn't even take a phone call.

Now the judge is saying that he is competent. She continues to say this. But he hasn't undergone any type of mental test, has he? He actually refused those, right?

TOOBIN: Well, he has refused, but by now, the judge has seen a lot of him, and has spoken to him, heard him talk, read all of these many, many motions that he has filed, and just because you refuse to see a psychiatrist doesn't mean that you are automatically insane, that you sort of get to short-circuit the process. The judge simply has to do her best with the information that's before her. And, again, it's worth reminding folks that it is very narrow category to be legally insane. It means that you simply don't understand the charges against you. If he thought he was on trial for robbing a candy store, that would be legally insane. So it's a very narrow category. The judge, I think, correctly has found that he does not fit into that category, so he is entitled to defend himself.

PHILLIPS: All right. Jeffrey Toobin. Thank you.





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