WASHINGTON -- A federal judge is considering for the second time in three years whether to accept a guilty plea from Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person in the United States charged in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema's decision is expected to hinge on whether she believes Moussaoui is mentally competent to make the decision, lawyers who have followed the case said Tuesday.
The judge summoned attorneys on both sides of the case to a closed courtroom in Alexandria, Va., on Tuesday to discuss a letter Moussaoui sent the court indicating his desire to plead guilty. The letter's contents are under seal, but a legal source said Moussaoui indicates his desire to plead guilty. The source spoke only on condition of anonymity because the letter has not been made public.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case declined to comment about the meeting. However, the source said Brinkema plans to meet with Moussaoui sometime this week.
Among the issues the judge will have to consider in deciding whether to allow the plea is the strained relationship Moussaoui has had with her and his attorneys since his indictment in December 2001, as well as his desire to use the legal proceedings to put U.S. foreign policy on trial.
"A judge has to be satisfied that the defendant is mentally fit to make such a plea and also to be sure that the defendant understands what his rights are, and that means having advice of counsel," said Stephen Dycus, a professor at Vermont Law School.
In this case, Moussaoui often has been at odds with his court-appointed lawyers, accusing them of wanting to have him executed. He fired them, but Brinkema kept them on a standby basis and later revoked Moussaoui's right to defend himself.
His legal team has argued strenuously against the death penalty, and is likely to oppose the guilty plea if it includes the possibility of a death sentence.
"Pleading guilty waives all legal challenges to the government's case against you, so defense lawyers in capital cases really don't like their clients to plead guilty," said Michael Mello, also a Vermont Law School professor.
A separate trial to determine his sentence would follow any plea.
The government has accused Moussaoui of participating in an al-Qaida conspiracy to commit terrorism that included the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. Moussaoui, a French citizen, tried to plead guilty in 2002 but took back the plea a week later.
His trial has been delayed three times. In March the Supreme Court declined to review an appeals court ruling denying Moussaoui direct access to three al-Qaida witnesses, who he believes might support his contention that he was not involved with the Sept. 11 planning. The court also allowed the government to seek the death penalty.
Eliminating a trial would spare Brinkema the difficult task of working with prosecutors and defense lawyers to craft unclassified summaries of the three al-Qaida prisoners' statements -- the compromise courts crafted to allow Moussaoui some access to their testimony.
"There are so many conflicting issues of national security and civil liberties to deal with here," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
In his handwritten filings, Moussaoui has railed against the U.S. government, Brinkema and his lawyers. In 2003 Brinkema stripped him of his right to defend himself, saying his legal filings "include contemptuous language that would never be tolerated from an attorney and will no longer be tolerated from this defendant."
In one of his last filings before the judge revoked his right to defend himself, Moussaoui said he wanted "anthrax for Jew sympathizer only," called then-Attorney General John Ashcroft "the Democratic Jerk" and referred to Brinkema as "Leonie you Despotically Judge."