Once Bitten, Twice Shy

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.



Since his capture in Minnesota in August 2001, confessed al Qaeda foot soldier Zacarias Moussaoui has made a cottage industry out of mocking the American justice system. He has taunted prosecutors, the judge and his own lawyers. He has railed against journalists, those fighting for his rights even as a hated terrorist, and just about anyone and everyone else who has tracked onto his radar screen. Three years ago, he said he wanted to plead guilty and then changed his mind in court. And now, the Washington Post reports, he's ready to do it again.

I will believe that Moussaoui has viably pleaded guilty to a role in the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks when I hear U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema's words saying so. I will believe it when I see and hear Moussaoui's earnest and harried attorney, federal public defender Frank Dunham, hold a news conference outside of the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va. But I do not expect to see Dunham in front of the cameras or read Judge Brinkema's order any time soon. There are so many hurdles between now and the acceptance of a guilty plea that Moussaoui ought to feel today like his unwitting look-alike, the great runner Edwin Moses.

Let's assume first that Moussaoui genuinely wants to plead guilty. This is a significant but not necessarily solid assumption. The Algerian-born Osama-devotee three years ago also said he would plead guilty but then backed out, literally at the last minute, when he disagreed in court with federal prosecutors and Judge Brinkema over precisely what terror conspiracy he was a part of. At the time, Moussaoui also was unwilling to accept any sort of plea deal that could and would result in the possibility of a death sentence. Now, reportedly, he has dropped that condition. That's fishy to me. Very fishy. In any event, we ought to know rather soon if Moussaoui is equally unserious now about a plea as he was in 2002. The Post reports he is scheduled to meet with Judge Brinkema this week to discuss its possibilities.

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