Moussaoui: Martyrdom On Trial

Habib Zacarias Moussaoui, gavel, judicial system, american flag, generic CBS/AP

Zacarias Moussaoui's demand to represent himself could create a nightmare scenario for the judge, prosecutors and the defense team he wants to fire.

That scenario may unfold if Moussaoui, the only man indicted as a Sept. 11 conspirator, is less concerned with winning than with becoming a political martyr in the courtroom.

"The judge is going to read Moussaoui the riot act but he is going to have a world audience," said Robert Precht, who represented a defendant convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

"He will be questioning witnesses, answering objections, making opening statements and closing statements," said Precht, now an assistant dean at the University of Michigan Law School.

In a court appearance Monday, Moussaoui, a French Muslim, pointed his finger skyward to get the judge's permission to speak. When he finished nearly an hour later in accented English, he had lowered the odds for an orderly trial and boosted chances he'd try to use the courtroom for anti-American diatribes.

The bearded, 33-year-old man, wearing a green prison jumpsuit, read verses from the Quran and said he prayed to Allah for destruction of the United States and Israel.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema and lawyers from other terrorism cases had a clear message for Moussaoui: Unless you want to severely damage your chances in a case that could end with an execution, don't fire your lawyers.

Brinkema told Moussaoui that deviation from courtroom decorum and U.S. legal procedures would not be tolerated and she all but tried to talk him out of his decision.

"The American legal system is complicated," she told the defendant. "You come from a different culture."

But she acknowledged that if Moussaoui passes a competency examination, she would have to grant his wish for self-representation.

Brinkema said trained lawyers — perhaps the three currently appointed by the court — would have to stay in the courtroom to represent Moussaoui's rights whether he cooperated or not.

Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, is charged with conspiring with Osama bin Laden, along with the 19 alleged hijackers and others, to commit the Sept. 11 attacks. His trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 30.

Tom Hillier, the federal public defender in Seattle who represented a man convicted in a Millennium terrorist bomb plot, said that, legally, Moussaoui would seriously damage his case by representing himself at trial, scheduled to begin Sept. 30.

"It's just logistically impossible to put all this together from a jail where he's under incredibly strict conditions of confinement," Hillier said. "He needs a team of people to do all sorts of things."

Irwin Schwartz, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said, "He's free to make a bad decision as he chooses, which is very sad."

Although Moussaoui has a master's degree, Schwartz said the French legal system is far different than the U.S. criminal procedures.

"I wouldn't care if he has a Ph.D in literature or fine arts. When working overseas, the first thing I do is find myself a local lawyer," Schwartz said.

Richard Lind, who represented a terrorism defendant who pleaded guilty to assaulting a correctional officer in New York City, said, "I'm kind of astounded" that Moussaoui wants to fire his attorneys.

"It's difficult to explain to someone even in this country about conspiracy law," said Lind. He said the legal task becomes more complicated if the defendant is convicted in a death penalty case and his lawyers have to argue mitigating factors to avoid execution.

Moussaoui said he has $30,000 and wants to hire a Muslim lawyer to act as an adviser — but cannot do so because the government has frozen his money.

Precht said he knew of no case that would allow Moussaoui to allege a violation of his rights because of a government asset freeze.

Precht said, however, that the judge might go along with a Muslim attorney to maintain an orderly courtroom.

"She may conclude, `If I can get a Muslim lawyer, it's possible he will behave better."'

And, Precht added, "the government may have to stand by as Moussaoui turns the proceeding into an anti-American platform. It will not be the showcase for American justice that prosecutors were hoping for."


By LARRY MARGASAK
  • Lloyd Vries

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