Alexandria, Va. Zacarias Moussaoui declared Thursday that he was guilty of conspiracy in the Sept. 11 attacks, then dramatically withdrew his plea after tangling with the judge over whether he had to admit that he tried to kill and maim Americans.
Moussaoui's performance at a roller coaster arraignment all but ensured he would begin trial this fall on charges that carry the death penalty. He is the lone person accused of conspiring with the Sept. 11 hijackers.
"You want to link me to certain facts that will guarantee my death," Moussaoui told U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema. "In the name of Allah, I have to withdraw my guilty plea."
Brinkema never accepted the guilty plea during more than an hour of back and forth questioning with Moussaoui, who is acting as his own lawyer after refusing to cooperate with his court-appointed attorneys.
The judge also warned prosecutors, who said little during the hearing, that they could not use Moussaoui's attempted guilty plea as evidence at his trial. "There was no guilty plea," she asserted.
Moussaoui, 34, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, exchanged several sharp words with the judge as they argued over the legal requirement for accepting his guilty pleas to four charges in his indictment all of which carried the death penalty.
"Today, I truthfully will enter on some of the charges, not all, a plea of guilty," Moussaoui declared, several times quoting from the federal rules of criminal procedure.
Brinkema started the hearing by ruling Moussaoui was competent to plead guilty. But she then concluded after a round of questioning that she could not accept Moussaoui's pleas because he was not admitting to the main goal of conspiracy to kill large numbers of Americans.
"At this point I do not believe you are prepared to make a guilty plea because you are not prepared to admit the essence of the conspiracy," Brinkema said.
Moussaoui's mother, Aicha el-Wafi of France, joined the packed courtroom after writing a letter pleading with the judge not to proceed with Thursday's hearing unless her son took the advice of counsel.
"My son has changed since he's been detained and above all the world has changed a lot since Sept. 11," she said outside the courtroom. "But Zacarias, my son, is not able to realize how much the world has changed since Sept. 11."
Brinkema previously scheduled jury selection to begin Sept. 30.
The challenges in the case were evident even when it came to taking the oath. Moussaoui has repeatedly objected to swearing on a Christian Bible, so the judge permitted him to make an amended oath Thursday.
"In the name of Allah ... I will tell the truth to the best of my ability," Moussaoui swore.
Moussaoui wore his traditional green prison jumpsuit, and was flanked by two U.S. marshals.
At the outset, he tried to plead guilty to four of six counts that carry the death penalty. They charge Moussaoui, 34, with conspiring to commit acts of terrorism across national boundaries, commit aircraft piracy, destroy aircraft and use weapons of mass destruction.
"It should not be misunderstood that I endorse the entire indictment," he declared. "There is enough factual basis for me to plead guilty in a truthful manner."
"I cannot plead guilty for something I don't know," he said.
At another point, he interjected: "I can plead guilty to this but it still doesn't put me on the plane" a reference to jetliners that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in western Pennsylvania, killing more than 3,000 people.
As the judge questioned Moussaoui closely to ensure he was pleading to the conduct alleged in the indictment, he admitted to certain facts such as participation in al-Qaida training but wouldn't agree he knew the goal of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The essence of the conspiracy," Brinkema told him, reviewing Count 1, was "that you willfully and knowingly agreed with members and associates of al-Qaida to kill and maim persons in the United States."
Moussaoui responded, "I understand but maybe you don't understand."
According to federal rules of criminal procedure, Moussaoui said, "Somebody can be a member of a conspiracy without knowing all the facts of the conspiracy."
"It doesn't work that way," Brinkema shot back, insisting he had to admit to the goal of the conspiracy.
After the exchange, Moussaoui asked for a recess and was granted a 15-minute break. He withdrew his plea when the proceeding resumed. Last week, Brinkema entered innocent pleas on his behalf, and those will now stand until the trial.