"In the name of Allah, I do not have anything to plead. I enter no plea. Thank you very much," a bearded Moussaoui said in accented English. He stood before U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema. He wore a dark green jumpsuit with the word "prisoner" on the back.
Brinkema said she took that to mean he was pleading not guilty. He stood silent and the plea was entered into the record. His lawyers had said in advance that he would plead innocent.
Moussaoui faces six counts of conspiracy in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 3,300 people. Four of the charges could carry the death penalty while the other two carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.
She rejected defense arguments that the date was too close to the Sept. 11 anniversary and the vast amount of publicity that could be expected at that time. Brinkema said she was confident that both sides could find an excellent jury in northern Virginia even though the courthouse is just a few miles from where one of the jetliners crashed into the Pentagon Sept. 11.
Defense lawyer Gerald Zerkin had told the judge that "the need to be further away from Sept. 11 is obvious."
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Spencer said publicity about the attacks "is going to have to be dealt with by the court no matter when" the trial begins.
Zerkin said the three defense attorneys two of whom are public defenders appointed by the court are facing a vast inditment that is international in scope and lists events in several European countries. He said the defense team will need security clearances, interpreters for Arabic documents and to bone up on the history of bin Laden's al-Qaida network and the principles of Islam.
"We simply cannot prepare a case in that amount of time," Zerkin argued in pressing unsuccessfully for a trial in early 2003.
Brinkema chose the government's suggested trial date, saying publicity from the one-year anniversary will have waned by mid-October. "I think the date suggested by the government does clear that (Sept. 11 anniversary) adequately," she said. She also said: "It was surprising to me how few people from the northern Virginia pool knew anybody" killed or injured on Sept. 11.
Federal marshals brought Moussaoui to the courthouse nearly four hours before the scheduled arraignment.
At least a dozen U.S. marshals were in the same courtroom on Dec. 19 when Moussaoui, who had just been transferred from detention in New York, appeared before a federal magistrate to hear the charges against him. Security personnel also ringed the federal court building.
Four charges in the six-count indictment could result in Moussaoui's execution, if he were convicted, and U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema set a March 29 deadline for prosecutors to decide whether they would seek the death penalty.
Moussaoui's mother, Aicha el-Wafi, came to the United States from France last week and said her son told her he could prove his innocence. The defendant, 33, is a French citizen of Moroccan descent who received a master's degree in England.
Although Moussaoui has been in federal custody on immigration charges since August, when he aroused suspicions at a Minnesota flight school, the indictment says he conspired with the Sept. 11 hijackers to kill and maim victims in the United States. While accusing him of links to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, the indictment does not explain his role in the terror attacks.
Nonetheless, Attorney General John Ashcroft called Moussaoui an active participant with the 19 hijackers who crashed four jetliners in New York, Washington and Western Pennsylvania, killing more than 3,000 people.
The indictment accuses Moussaoui of pursuing some of the same activities as the hijackers by taking flight training in the United States, inquiring about crop dusting and purchasing flight deck training videos.
The indictment also said Moussaoui received money in July and August from Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, an alleged member of a German terrorist cell who was a roommate of Mohammed Atta, the suspected ringleader in the attacks. The FBI believes Bin al-Shibh may have been planning to be the 20th hijacker.
A clear indication of the case's importance was Senate passage of legislation to broadcast the trial on closed-circuit television in the cities most affected by the hijackings.
The House has not yet acted on the measure, which is modled on a similar privilege granted to Oklahoma City bombing victims and families.
Cameras usually are not permitted in federal courtrooms, but Court TV has challenged the rule as unconstitutional and filed a motion to broadcast the proceedings. Brinkema set a Jan. 9 hearing for Court TV's motion and gave the prosecution and defense until Jan. 4 to make their positions known.
The indictment contends that Moussaoui was present at the al-Qaida-affiliated Khalden Camp in Afghanistan. By the end of September 2000, he was making parallel moves to some of the hijackers with his flight lessons, crop dusting interest and training video purchases.
He attended the Airman Flight School in Norman, Okla., between Feb. 26 and May 29, 2001, but ended his classes early.
By Aug. 10, the indictment said, he was attending the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Eagan, Minn., for simulator training on a Boeing 747 Model 400. Among his possessions was a computer disk with information related to the aerial application of pesticides.
Moussaoui was detained by federal authorities on Aug. 17, two days after the instructor at the academy contacted the FBI.
Moussaoui, according to news reports, aroused suspicion because he didn't seem to understand French although he said he was from France. Suspicions were sharpened because of Moussaoui's limited flying skills. He couldn't fly solo despite his previous lessons in Oklahoma.
The specific charges are conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries; commit aircraft piracy; destroy aircraft; use weapons of mass destruction; murder U.S. employees and destroy U.S. property. Conviction on the first four counts carries a maximum penalty of death, while the last two counts have a maximum of life imprisonment.
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