The Case Against Zacarias Moussaoui

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Zacarias Moussaoui is arraigned in Alexandria, Virginia

It wasn't exactly by the book, but Zacarias Moussaoui, the first person charged in the September 11th terror attacks, entered a not guilty plea at his arraignment Wednesday morning. The man alleged by federal authorities to be the "20th hijacker" stood before Judge Leonie Brinkema in a federal courtroom just miles from the site of the Pentagon attack, and told the court, "In the name of Allah I do not have anything to plea. I enter no plea." So Brinkema entered a not guilty plea for Moussaoui.

At present, the trial is slated to begin October 14th, with jury selection scheduled for September 30th, and Moussaoui's three public defenders will have their hands full. How will they do? Will the case against Moussauoi hold up? And what will his defense look like?

The case against him

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Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, first aroused suspicions in August, after he paid $6,000 for flying lessons in Minnesota. He was detained shortly thereafter, before the September attacks. He is charged with six criminal counts of conspiracy: to commit acts of terrorism across international boundaries, to destroy aircraft, to commit aircraft piracy, to use weapons of mass destruction, to murder U.S. employees and destroy U.S. property. If Moussaoui is found guilty of the first four counts, he will face the death penalty; the last two charges carry a life sentence.

Moussaoui's trial will be closely watched, not only for the alleged terrorist himself but for the locale and the presiding judge. The Alexandria, Virginia court is known as the "rocket docket," for the deliberate speed of its proceedings, and Judge Brinkema is considered the lone progressive in an overwhelmingly conservative court. There is some conjecture Moussaoui's attorneys may push for a change of venue, given the proximity to the Pentagon attack site.

While federal prosecutors have until March 29th to decide if they will request the death penalty, most consider the deadline a mere formality. Less certain is the strength of the actual case against Moussaoui — and how well the six charges will stand up against legal scrutiny. Some experts consider the case largely circumstantial, citing the lack of hard evidence against Moussaoui. The case, they argue, is based primarily on allegations that Mousssaoui's behavior followed patterns similar that of the actual hijackers: attending flight training school, inquiring into crop dusting procedures, and apparently receiving funding from Ramsey bin al-Shied, an international fugitive believed to have paid for numerous terrorist attacks. Damning coincidences, to be sure, but will they be enough to convict Moussaoui?

Casting reasonable doubt

While there are benefits (for prosecutors) who use a conspiracy charge (it's broad and can cover a lot of ground), conspiracy isn't necessarily an easy charge to prove. "When you read the indictment, it reads like a laundry list of different activities by different people in different parts of the world," says Barry Pollack, a criminal defense attorney and partner at the Washington, D.C. firm of Nixon Peabody. "What his defense attorneys need to do is separate Moussaoui from the actions of other people." In a normal case, that might not be so hard — there doesn't seem to be any physical evidence linking him to the conspiracy — but in this case, the charge itself will work against the defendant, says Pollack. "The conspiracy charge is a very powerful tool for prosecutors. If Moussaoui did enter into a conspiracy, he is legally responsible not only for what he did, but for what his co-conspirators have done in the furthering of the conspiracy" — or at least what he could have foreseen them doing when he opted to join the conspiracy.

There is another factor working in favor of the prosecution, adds Pollack. "Ordinarily, it might be hard to tie this massive conspiracy theory together. In this environment, of course, it's going to be very tough to find an impartial jury. And circumstantial evidence is still evidence, and a jury will probably be very receptive to any evidence at all."