Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, pleaded not guilty Wednesday, setting in motion a prolonged and high-profile legal battle that will also put Osama bin Laden's terrorism network on trial before a global audience.
The case confronts a range of unusual legal issues, including what constitutes terrorism and how the legal system should balance the nation's security interests against a defendant's right to know the evidence against him.
"I think what the American people are going to see is a closely fought case, the outcome of which is genuinely in doubt, involving an issue that is one of the most important issues of our time," said Ronald Kuby, a prominent defense lawyer.
Moussaoui, 33, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, will be tried in U.S. District Court on six counts of conspiring with Bin Laden, 19 men identified as the hijackers and others to murder thousands of people in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. If convicted, he faces the death penalty on any one of four of those counts, and life in prison on each of the other two.
"In the name of Allah, I do not have anything to plead," Moussaoui, speaking in heavily accented English, said in the Alexandria courtroom. "I enter no plea. Thank you very much."
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said she understood Moussaoui's statement to be a plea of not guilty. After Moussaoui's defense attorney, Frank Dunham, agreed, Brinkema set an Oct. 14 trial date for the case.
Her decision was made over defense attorneys' objections that nine months is not enough time to prepare for such a complex case. They also argued that it will come too close to the one-year anniversary of the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon, which is less than two miles from the courthouse.
Brinkema also gave prosecutors until March 29 to say whether they intend to seek the death penalty.
Trial Expected to Draw Worldwide Audience
Some legal experts predict that the case could become for terrorism what the O.J. Simpson case was for murder: an almost forensic dissection of all aspects of the issue.
Court TV has petitioned Brinkema to televise the trial. But even if that request is rejected, Wednesday's brief arraignment offered proof that an international contingent of journalists will be hanging on every development and broadcasting them worldwide.
Kuby said the trial will showcase the benefits of a public criminal proceeding as opposed to a military tribunal.
"There are very experienced teams of lawyers on both sides, you have a court that has already shown it will provide sufficient resources to the defense to mount a good defense and you will have the whole world watching," said Kuby, who has defended terrorists in several high-profile cases, including some ultimately convicted in the 1993 plot to blow up New York City landmarks.
According to the government's lengthy indictment, prosecutors will attempt to prove that Moussaoui was not only a co-conspirator in the Sept. 11 attacks but also an active member of Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.
And it is those conspiracy charges that could make the trial so provocative and the daily developments so unpredictable, legal experts said.
In cases involving national security, the defendant often does not know all of the evidence against him because the government can claim that it is classified information and releasing it would jeopardize national security.
Moreover, in federal court, prosecutors can withhold surprise witnesses until the last minute. Because Moussaoui is being charged as a conspirator instead of a direct participant, much could be left to interpretation.
"There are a series of facts that can easily be rearranged by the government and the defense to present entirely different pictures [of Moussaoui] to the jurors," said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University Law School who specializes in national security cases.
Turley described the Moussaoui indictment as "a preliminary novel, in a sense."
"The most interesting people in that courtroom will be those people who will not be present," such as Bin Laden, Turley said. "That is precisely why a conspiracy case like this is so interesting: Both sides are not tethered to any factual foundation. They have these rich and sinister characters who will be omnipresent, but not present, at the trial. And both sides may [use] these characters to their advantage."
Security Tight as Moussaoui Appears
Moussaoui entered his plea in a packed courtroom ringed by heavy security. As was the case in a previous appearance, he did not stand in the judge's presence until prodded to do so by a bailiff.
Dressed in a blue-green prison jumpsuit and wearing shackles, Moussaoui offered his remarks in a strong voice before slouching in his chair for the rest of the half-hour proceeding.
Moussaoui's mother, who had flown from France to be at her son's side during the hearing, decided at the last minute not to attend, saying through a lawyer that she did not want to draw attention away from the proceedings. Later, in an emotional plea at Dulles International Airport, Aicha el-Wafi asked prosecutors to spare her son's life if he is convicted. And she repeated claims that he is innocent.
"I refuse to have my son be a scapegoat for things he didn't do," she said before boarding a flight home. She added that, in a letter that her son mailed to her from jail, "he told me he didn't do anything."
Moussaoui was indicted last month and charged with conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, to commit aircraft piracy, to destroy aircraft, to use weapons of mass destruction, to murder U.S. employees and to destroy property.
U.S. authorities have suggested that Moussaoui, who had a history of Islamic militancy in Europe, may have been preparing to be the 20th hijacker, joining one of four teams that launched the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history.
They say the jetliner that crashed into a Pennsylvania field had only four hijackers on board while the other three planes had five and that Moussaoui was making similar preparations as the hijackers, including seeking flight training and surveying Web sites on crop-dusting. But he had been arrested and was detained on immigration charges when the terrorists struck Sept. 11.
Authorities also allege that Moussaoui spent part of 1998 in an Al Qaeda terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and that he had connections to another man implicated in the plot, Ramzi Binalshibh. They have not, however, publicly offered any proof that Moussaoui knew any of the 19 hijackers or that he engaged in any planning with them.
Flight Lessons Had Raised Suspicions
Moussaoui was arrested in Minnesota in mid-August on immigration violations after he aroused suspicion by trying to buy time on a jumbo jet flight simulator at a flight school. He was later taken to New York as a material witness in the case.
On Wednesday, Moussaoui's defense lawyers said the October trial date does not give them enough time to prepare, particularly given all of the national security issues involved. Much of the government's case is expected to come from classified documents and from law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the U.S. and other countries.
That will require the lawyers to get security clearances, defense lawyer Gerald Zerkin argued. He and other lawyers suggested it would be hard to get an impartial jury: the district is known for its conservative judges and juries.
Brinkema said she believes an "excellent jury" can be assembled from the suburban communities near the courthouse. And she said the government will issue the necessary security clearances quickly.