Judge Denies Bid by Moussaoui to Withdraw Guilty Plea

Times Staff Writer

Convicted terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, declaring his surprise at having received a fair trial, asked a federal judge Monday to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea so he can go to trial. This time he won’t lie on the witness stand, he said.

But Judge Leonie M. Brinkema quickly turned down the request.

She said federal law prevented a criminal defendant from withdrawing a guilty plea after sentencing. Moussaoui was given life in prison without parole Thursday.

“His motion is too late and must be denied on this basis alone,” she said.

Moussaoui, in a three-page affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., said he was “extremely surprised” that he received a fair sentencing trial over the last two months and admitted that he lied when he testified he had been preparing to fly a fifth hijacked plane into the White House on Sept. 11, 2001.


The French Moroccan said he only agreed to plead guilty because 4 1/2 years in solitary confinement had “made me hostile toward everyone and I began taking extreme positions to fight the system.”

He further stated he did not know lead hijacker Mohamed Atta or the other 18 hijackers. Several jurors indicated after Moussaoui’s trial that they never believed he was a major participant in the Sept. 11 plot. They said that was one reason they sentenced him to life in prison rather than death.

The request by Moussaoui was a long shot at best.

Even his court-appointed lawyers, in a footnote to the legal motion, acknowledged that the law prohibited a sentenced defendant from withdrawing his guilty plea.

“Notwithstanding this prohibition,” the defense lawyers said, “counsel is filing this motion given their problematic relationship with Moussaoui, of which the court is well aware.” They were referring to Moussaoui’s refusal to cooperate with them.

But the judge’s denial can be appealed, and Carl Tobias, a law school professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said the government might see it as a second chance to get what they want -- Moussaoui’s execution.

Moussaoui is the only person to be prosecuted in this country for the Sept. 11 attacks, and the government spent untold millions to put the case together, only to see its effort fall short Wednesday when the jury chose life over death for Moussaoui.

“If for some bizarre reason Moussaoui manages to get the trial redone,” Tobias said, “they could finally get to execute him.”

Prosecutors did not respond to Moussaoui’s request.

Moussaoui was arrested in August 2001 in Minnesota, where he was taking flight training. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he was charged in connection with the plot.

In his affidavit, Moussaoui said that because he was not given a Muslim defense lawyer, he didn’t trust the American judicial process.

“I was sure that the justice system was just a charade and I would be given death,” he said.

His skepticism, he said, led him to plead guilty in April 2005. In his trial, he claimed he was to pilot a fifth hijacked plane on Sept. 11.

But in his new affidavit, Moussaoui said “that was a complete fabrication. I have never met Mohamed Atta and, while I may have seen a few of the other hijackers at the guesthouse [of an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan], I never knew them or anything about their operation.”

Moussaoui added that when he came to this country in early 2001, he was “involved in a separate operation” from the Sept. 11 conspiracy plot and that “I did not have any knowledge of and was not a member of the [Sept. 11] plot.”

Now, he said, “I see that it is possible that I can receive a fair trial even with Americans as jurors.... I wish to withdraw my guilty plea and ask the court for a fair trial to prove my innocence of the Sept. 11 plot.”