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Moussaoui competent to be own counsel

Some fear the ruling could wildly complicate the case against the man accused of being the 20th hijacker.

By MARY JACOBY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 14, 2002

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- After a federal judge ruled the only person charged directly in the Sept. 11 attacks is competent to act as his own lawyer, Zacarias Moussaoui pleaded for his immediate release Thursday, implying the U.S. government had framed him.

Wearing a green jumpsuit with the word PRISONER on the back, Moussaoui, accused of being the 20th hijacker, appeared to deny any knowledge of the terrorist plot that killed more than 3,000 people.

With his mother in the courtroom watching from under a black veil, the bushy-bearded prisoner suggested the government was using him as a scapegoat to cover up its own complicity in the attacks.

Moussaoui said authorities made a "decision to arrest me and not the other persons" at the flight school in Eagan, Minn., that Moussaoui attended last year "because they know I was not in contact with these people who were to have done the hijacking."

In thickly accented but fluent English, the French citizen of Moroccan descent repeatedly blurted out a former address in London, 23-A Lambert Road SW, saying it was the key to his defense.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema refused to let Moussaoui, 34, offer what he described as an "emergency motion" containing surprise information that he said would exonerate him.

He also repeated earlier assertions that his court-appointed legal team was trying to kill him. He said he intended to engage a Muslim lawyer, whom he would not name, to assist him in the case.

Earlier in the hearing, Brinkema had declared Moussaoui legally competent, despite his erratic, Koran-quoting performance at an April 22 hearing, in which he called for the destruction of Israel and the United States, called himself a slave of Allah and praised the Taliban.

"Mr. Moussaoui does come from a different culture," Brinkema said Thursday. "Cultural differences may appear irrational to different cultures."

Brinkema accepted the conclusion of a court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Raymond Patterson, that Moussaoui's beliefs are not irrational, given his virulently anti-American "subculture."

Moussaoui politely answered a series of questions from Brinkema showing that he understood he faced death if convicted and grasped the consequences of dismissing his lawyers.

A legal expert indicated the decision was not surprising. "It's a very low bar to prove competency. The defendant needs to understand the basic trial procedures and what a jury is, the role of a jury, and things of that sort," said Robert Precht, an assistant dean at the University of Michigan Law School.

Moussaoui's lawyers had argued that more time is needed to determine Moussaoui's mental state. They said that Patterson had spent only two hours with Moussaoui and that the defendant did not answer all his questions.

Moreover, Moussaoui told the psychiatrist things that might indicate paranoia and mental illness, the lawyers said.

"There will be manipulations. . . . Lawyers want to say I'm crazy now, then at guilt phase, (say) he's sane so they can impose death penalty," Moussaoui told Patterson, according to the filing.

The defense team said their own psychiatrists had determined that Moussaoui might be mentally ill.

But Brinkema noted that the defense evaluators had not met with Moussaoui. And the government said they should not be deemed credible because they had consulted on their diagnosis with Tarik Hamdi, a former Tampa resident with alleged links to al-Qaida.

But now that Moussaoui is representing himself, he will face the difficult problem of classified material. Brinkema has ruled that he can't have access to it, raising the question whether he can get a fair trial if he represents himself.

Randall Hamud, a San Diego lawyer and Muslim retained by Moussaoui's mother, Aicha el-Wafi of France, said a fair trial is unlikely in such circumstances.

"It will be more like a railroad. It's impossible for him to defend himself. A lot of the materials introduced against him will be classified and he won't be able to see them," Hamud said in a telephone interview before the hearing.

The solution, according to prosecutors, is for Brinkema to appoint a standby legal team that can review classified materials for Moussaoui.

Moussaoui said he would not accept Hamud as his standby lawyer, saying he believes his mother, who does not speak English, was duped.

"As a mother, she is trying her best to help her son," Moussaoui said, but he still cannot trust Hamud.

Moussaoui said a Muslim lawyer he would not name had contacted him after the April hearing and offered to represent him. Court papers identify the lawyer as being from Texas.

Brinkema said the lawyer must pass an FBI background check before he could be cleared to view classified materials.

On Thursday, Moussaoui's current legal team pleaded to be released from service.

"We don't believe it is right for us to remain in this case in any capacity," said Frank Dunham Jr., a Virginia public defender with experience in death penalty cases.

But Brinkema rejected their plea, saying they would need to stay on as standby lawyers to brief any new attorney engaged by Moussaoui.

Moussaoui has filed a flurry of pleadings that have so far been withheld from public view. Brinkema said the filings will be released publicly after the government ensures they do not violate national security and his court-appointed lawyers make sure they do not make any threats to their safety.

The pleadings are written in a manner "a bit more dramatic" than typical legal documents, said Brinkema, who added that Moussaoui has a "flair for adjectives."

Legal analysts said that by acting as his own lawyer, Moussaoui will throw courtroom procedure into a jumble.

"Whenever a defendant goes pro se, it threatens to turn a trial into a circus. And it seems obvious he wants to use the trial as a platform to attack America," said Precht, the Michigan assistant dean who represented a defendant in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

But with the world watching, some confusion at trial may simply be "the price we have to pay in order to persuade the world that people can receive a fair trial in the United States," Precht said.

A federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia handed down a six-count indictment of Moussaoui in December, alleging conspiracy to murder U.S. employees and commit terrorism.

The indictment says he accepted a wire money transfer from Ramzi Binalshibh, an al-Qaida cell member and former roommate of hijacker Mohammed Atta in Hamburg, Germany.

Moussaoui was in jail on Sept. 11 on immigration charges after his instructors at Pan Am International Flight Academy in Eagan, Minn., alerted authorities to suspicious behavior.

Moussaoui was a poor pilot, they said, but wanted to learn to fly jumbo jets.

-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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