Zacarias Moussaoui has notified the government that he intends to plead guilty to his alleged role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and could enter the plea as early as this week if a judge finds him mentally competent, sources familiar with the case said Monday.
Moussaoui's plan to plead guilty comes over his attorneys' objections and still has several obstacles, includaing Moussaoui's own whim. The French citizen, the only person charged in the United States in the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, tried to plead guilty in 2002, claiming an intimate knowledge of the plane hijackings. But he rescinded his plea a week later. His mental state has been an issue in the case ever since, and U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema in Alexandria, Va., is scheduled to meet with Moussaoui this week to determine whether he has the mental capacity to enter a plea now, the sources said.
In recent letters to the government and to Brinkema, Moussaoui said he was willing to accept the possibility of a death sentence, which sources said could resolve a key point of contention: Prosecutors are unlikely to drop their insistence on capital punishment. If Brinkema accepts a plea, she would then probably set a death penalty trial, at which jurors would decide whether Moussaoui should be executed.
Moussaoui's renewed interest in a plea comes as the case, which has seen years of delays, seemed to be headed toward trial. Moussaoui was indicted in December 2001, but his trial has been delayed three times. For most of the past two years, the case has been tied up in the appellate courts in a dispute over Moussaoui's access to key al-Qaida witnesses.
Moussaoui's indictment has been hailed by the Bush administration as proof that the government could fight terror in criminal courtrooms, and his trial is seen as a possible airing of the evidence gathered about the 9-11 terrorist attacks. If Moussaoui were to plead guilty, much of that evidence might never be heard.