ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Zacarias Moussaoui, the only man indicted as a Sept. 11 conspirator, politely raised his hand for attention, then declared in court on Monday that he was praying for destruction of the United States and wanted to fire the appointed lawyers he said could not be trusted.
For nearly an hour in federal court, Moussaoui alternated readings from the Quran with an attack on the U.S. criminal justice system. In calm, accented but understandable English, the French citizen accused prosecutors, his lawyers and the judge of working together to end the case quickly with his execution.
"What they've done is a sophisticated version of the kiss of death," Moussaoui said, facing U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema. "The U.S. commander in chief wants me over as quickly as possible."
In a hearing that swerved suddenly from the intended argument over Moussaoui's prison conditions, Brinkema warned that he would place himself at a great disadvantage by representing himself in the death penalty case.
"The American legal system is complicated," she said, addressing the bearded, 33-year-old man in a green prison jumpsuit. "You come from a different culture."
Before she made those remarks, Moussaoui had told her, "I want to defend my life." He asked for a Muslim attorney of his choice to advise him.
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.
The government has frozen Moussaoui's assets of more than $30,000, and even that amount would hardly be enough to finance a defense privately in a case with potential witnesses from overseas and thousands of pages of documents.
Moussaoui also asked for a trial without a jury. Brinkema did not rule immediately on that.
'He needs a team'
Legal experts said Moussaoui is placing himself in a nearly impossible legal situation. Among them was Tom Hillier, the federal public defender in Seattle who represented Ahmed Ressam, a man convicted last April in a terrorist bomb-smuggling conspiracy.
"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."
Moussaoui, who is of Moroccan descent, promised he would not "make your day" by physically assaulting anyone in court and declared, "The United States will not have a trial without me. They only need me for the gas chamber."
Brinkema ordered a mental examination to ensure that Moussaoui would be able to represent himself. His chief lawyer, federal public defender Frank Dunham Jr., said he wasn't surprised at Moussaoui's demand to fire him. Nor, he said, could he assure the judge that Moussaoui was mentally fit given his near-total isolation in the Alexandria Detention Center. Moussaoui is locked up 22 hours a day.
Brinkema said the government had agreed to give Moussaoui a computer, turn off one of two 24-hour cell lights and make other concessions. But Moussaoui said he let his lawyers challenge his conditions of confinement only to gain admission to the courtroom to address the judge.
"The only thing that was really annoying me was I have no window," he said.
'There was no trust'
Moussaoui told the judge, "I pray to Allah" for "the destruction of the United States of America," for "the destruction of the Jewish people and state" and for Muslims fighting in Chechnya, India and elsewhere. He then moved into criticism of his lawyers and cited some cases, saying he was reading law books in jail.
Moussaoui said only a Muslim lawyer could understand how to defend him, adding that he mistrusted appointed lawyers "who have no understanding of terrorism, Muslims and Mujahedeen. I never told them anything of substance so there was no trust ... between me and them."
When the attorneys tried to develop their tactics against his wishes, he said he told them, "This is my life."
Dunham suggested that a Muslim identified publicly only as John Doe -- who sought to visit the defendant in jail -- could have explained what the defense was trying to accomplish.
Prosecutors said "John Doe" had been denied visitation rights because he refused to undergo an FBI background check. However, Moussaoui said he has no intention of speaking to the man anyway.
Moussaoui said his three attorneys wanted to use thousands of pages of documents to confuse a jury. "That's how we're going to save your life, Mr. Moussaoui," he said mockingly.