Thursday, July 18, 2002

As It Unfolded: Moussaoui Tries to Plead Guilty

5:00 If there was a news conference, we didn't see it. We did just see a taped report of NBC's Pete Williams on MSNBC, and he got it right as to the procedure. So did Dan Abrams on his show at 6pm ET. According to a law professor interviewed by Pete Williams in his piece, the death penalty is legally doubtful for Moussaoui if all he did was join the conspiracy but didn't actually kill or hurt anyone. Dan disagreed, pointing out that the jury was allowed to consider the death penalty for Terry Nichols even though he was not in Oklahoma City the day the federal building there was bombed. (The Nichols jury voted for life over death, which explains the State of Oklahoma's insistence on trying him in state court where he will once again be subject to the death penalty. )

Our view: Send in the lawyer from Texas that Moussaoui asked to have advise him weeks ago. It shouldn't matter that the lawyer isn't licensed in Virginia, he's not seeking to enter his appearance as Moussaoui's counsel, only to advise Moussaoui while he is representing himself. It's clear Moussaoui doesn't understand the consequences of pleading guilty if he thinks it is a guarantee of saving his life. And sending Moussaoui to face a death penalty jury without advice of counsel of choice is not a resolution Americans should be proud of--or stand for.

1:15 News conference hasn't started yet, but some misinformation is emerging on two cable networks that we've seen about what happens sentencing-wise if Moussaoui pleads guilty.

Here is the applicable federal death penalty statute.

First, contrary to what one analyst has said, Moussaoui does not need the Government's permission to plead guilty. There is no plea bargain here. Anyone can plead guilty at any time to all of the charges against them. They just can't plead guilty to lesser charges without an agreement. The sole issue as to whether Moussaoui can plead guilty to the offenses with which he is charged is whether he is legally competent to do so.

Second, the death penalty can be applied where a defendant pleads guilty. Moussaoui said today he wants to fight the death penalty. The procedure followed when someone pleads guilty in a case in which the Government has filed a notice to seek the death penalty is for the judge is to convene a 12 member jury to hear the evidence and make the life/death decision.(Section (b)(2)(a) of statute linked to above, 18 USC 3593).

However, the judge can make the decision without a jury if the defendant requests, and the government agrees. (Section (b)(3))

By pleading guilty to the crime, Moussaoui does not waive his right to seek life over death, and he certainly could get the death penalty if the jury or judge so determined after a hearing.

12:25 Moussaoui confesses to crimes in open court...According to Pete Williams now on MSNBC, Moussaoui was more combative in court today, mocking the Judge, talking when she talked, saying the Judge isn't being fair, her politeness is a sham, she is trying to get him executed.

At the end of hearing, which was supposed to be his re-arraignment on the new Indictment, the fireworks started when he refused to plead and the Judge said she would enter a not guilty plea for him. He then said he wanted to plead guilty because the Judge wouldn't allow him to run his defense the way he wanted to. He announced he was guilty, he was a member of Al Qaeda, and he knew who was responsible for the September 11 attacks.

The Judge gave him a week to think it over.

Moussaoui wants to plead guilty but fight for his life in the sentencing phase.

12:25 MT: news conference about to start, longer AP article

Coming across the AP wires now, " Zacarias Moussaoui, indicted in connection with Sept. 11 attacks, tries to plea guilty to federal charges; judge tells him to think it over "

Stay tuned....

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