ALEXANDRIA, Va., April 22 (UPI) -- The guilty plea Friday by Zacarias Moussaoui, the only man charged in the United States in connection with the Sept. 11 terror attacks, may not bring to an end the 3-1/2 years of legal travails as prosecutors still must present evidence to show he deserves the death penalty.
Appearing in federal district court in Alexandria, Va., wearing a green jump suit with "prisoner" emblazoned on his back, Moussaoui pleaded guilty to charges he conspired to: commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries, commit acts of aircraft piracy, destroy aircraft, use weapons of mass destruction, murder government employees and destroy property. The first four counts carry the death sentence, a penalty the 36-year-old French-Moroccan said he would fight.
Judge Leonie Brinkema read him all six charges and asked how he would plead. "I want to plead guilty to all six charges," he replied. As no plea bargain was struck, the judge repeatedly asked Moussaoui if he knew that he was giving up a right to appeal and could face the death penalty. The defendant replied in the affirmative each time. The pleas came despite legal advice from his attorneys, whom Moussaoui has in the past tried to fire.
Defendants can plead guilty over the objection of their lawyers as long as their pleas are voluntary. Moussaoui's lawyers, however, have questioned if he can understand the charges against him
Attorney Alan Yamamoto told the judge he and his client had discussed the charges and their possible impact.
"We've gone around in circles," he said. "He appears to understand."
Brinkema, who on Wednesday ruled the defendant was competent to plead guilty, praised Moussaoui's intelligence.
"He's an extremely intelligent man with a better understand of the legal system that some lawyers I've seen in court," she said.
Moussaoui was first arrested in August 2001 after raising suspicion at a flight school in Minnesota where he was learning to fly Boeing 747 aircraft. Prosecutors had initially labeled him the "20th hijacker," in reference to the 19 Sept. 11 attackers -- members of al-Qaida -- who hijacked four aircraft and crashed them into New York World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in western Pennsylvania. They have since backed off that tag.
In a bizarre twist toward the end of the hearing Friday, Moussaoui said he had been trained to fly Boeing 747-400s not to be part of the Sept. 11 plot but to rescue Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind cleric convicted in the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 who is imprisoned in Minnesota. If federal authorities did not free the sheik, he said, he would have used the plane to hit the White House. He said if the sheik were freed, he would have flown him to Afghanistan.
"I was being trained on Boeing 747-400 to eventually hit the White House," Moussaoui said. "This was a different conspiracy."
Moussaoui has all along acknowledged being part of al-Qaida and sworn allegiance to the group's leader, Osama bin Laden, but has repeatedly denied taking part in the Sept. 11 plot.
He has said he will fight in the penalty phase against the death penalty. Experts say he may have a case.
"I think clearly the important issue to be considered is what kind of access he can have to the terrorism detainees at Guantanamo Bay," Peter Margulies, a professor of law at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island who deals with terrorism cases, told United Press International in an interview. "This will continue to be an issue in the penalty phase."
Moussaoui's lawyers can have access to parts of summaries of depositions of senior al-Qaida prisoners in custody at Guantanamo Bay and other locations, but not to the prisoners or transcripts themselves. Moussaoui has argued that their testimony should absolve him of a direct in the Sept. 11 attacks. If this approach works in the sentencing phase, he will face life in prison and not the death penalty, which the prosecution is seeking.
"There the government's case is much more murky," Margulies said. "I don't know if they can prove he played a direct role."
The government may also have to contend with other terrorism suspects captured in Afghanistan and other nations as part of the war on terror and detained at Guantanamo Bay where they face military courts. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last term that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay had the right to have their cases reviewed by federal courts in Washington to determine the constitutionality of their detention, a move that could result in some civilian trials.
Outside the courthouse Friday, relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks lauded law-enforcement officials for their work in getting the guilty plea.
"There was satisfaction to me at what was an unconditional surrender," said D. Hamilton Peterson whose father, Donald Peterson, and stepmother, Jean Peterson, died on Flight 93.
"It's an incredible feeling to have him plead guilty," said Dominic J. Puopolo Jr., of Dover, Mass., who mother died on Sept. 11, 2001.