The only man charged with direct involvement in the September 11 terrorist attacks faces a crucial court hearing outside Washington this week. On Thursday, a federal judge is expected to decide whether to accept a guilty plea from Zacarias Moussaoui, who is acting as his own attorney.
In a case that has already taken several strange turns, Zacarias Moussaoui suddenly shifted last week and announced he wanted to plead guilty. Judge Leonie Brinkema gave the defendant a week to think about his plea and on Thursday she may or may not accept it.
Judge Brinkema has already expressed concern that Mr. Moussaoui does not fully understand the consequences of a guilty plea and some legal experts predict she might reject it and force him to accept court-appointed lawyers to represent him.
"So it is not outside the realm of possibility on Thursday that the judge will say that, 'taking a guilty plea like this is such a serious matter, I'm not going to let you represent yourself and I want you to be advised by actual counsel,'" said Ira Robbins, a professor of criminal law at American University's Law School in Washington.
Former federal prosecutor Mark Hulkhower also doubts that Mr. Moussaoui will be allowed to plead guilty. He was interviewed on CBS television. "If I were a betting man, I would bet that the plea does not go through," he said. "Remember, he's got to spend an hour answering questions under oath admitting to every part of each offense. He can't say I did a little bit, but not all of it. He's going to have to admit to everything and given his track record so far, I don't see that happening."
Mr. Moussaoui faces six conspiracy counts including murder. He could be sentenced to death if convicted. Mr. Moussaoui has refused to cooperate with prosecutors since his arrest at a Minnesota flight school last August.
But The Washington Post reports that prosecutors may approach Mr. Moussaoui to see what he knows about the September 11 plot in light of his apparent desire to plead guilty.
Law Professor Ira Robbins says Mr. Moussaoui would be wise to cooperate if he hopes to avoid a death sentence. "If he's truly trying to avoid the death penalty then he ought to try, with or without counsel, but I think preferably with counsel, to engage in plea discussions with the prosecution, saying I'm willing to plea guilty to all of the six conspiracy crimes as charged, I am willing to cooperate with the government and in return, you take the death penalty off the table," he said.
While acting as his own attorney in recent months, Mr. Moussaoui has filed a series of motions proclaiming his innocence and accusing the judge and his former lawyers of being out to get him. But in his latest court appearance last week, he said he was a member of al-Qaida and pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden.
Former prosecutor Mark Hulkhower says Federal Judge Leonie Brinkema has demonstrated patience and restraint in dealing with Mr. Moussaoui. "Even for a judge whose patience is inexhaustible, Moussaoui could exhaust it," he said. "There will come a point where the judge is just going to stop and say, 'you cannot turn my courtroom into a circus'. We have not gotten there yet, but I'm not sure that he has a lot more time to go."
Even if Mr. Moussaoui decides to cooperate with prosecutors, they are not convinced his information about the September 11 conspiracy would be all that useful. U.S. authorities believe Mr. Moussaoui was a late addition to the hijacking plot and some of them question his willingness to provide reliable information.