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The judge in the Zacarias Moussaoui case had little choice but to put the accused terrorist’s guilty plea on hold, and could refuse to accept the plea even if Moussaoui insists he wants to go ahead with it, lawyers said. Moussaoui surprised U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema and everyone else in the Alexandria, Va., courtroom Thursday by announcing he wanted to plead guilty. He is acting as his own lawyer in the trial and had apparently not negotiated anything with prosecutors. Brinkema insisted that Moussaoui take a week to think about it. The hiatus will help ensure that Moussaoui really knows what he is doing, lawyers said. “She’s been concerned about his mental stability for a while now, and this gives him a little time to think about whether this is something he really wants to do,” said George Washington University law professor Stephen Saltzburg. Lawyers were baffled as to why Moussaoui, the only person charged in connection with the Sept. 11 terror attacks, would want to plead guilty to crimes that could mean a death sentence. “It’s committing suicide,” said Plato Cacheris, a criminal defense lawyer who negotiated a guilty plea for FBI spy Robert Hanssen. The plea deal spared Hanssen a possible death sentence. Like the Hanssen plea, most such deals are worked out behind the scenes, and include a trade — information or some other benefit for the government in return for a lesser sentence. To accept the plea, Brinkema must be convinced that Moussaoui understands what he is giving up by skipping a trial, and that he is mentally competent to make the plea. By law, she must also be sure the plea is voluntary. Several lawyers predicted the plea could fall apart quickly, either because Moussaoui has a change of heart or because he shows he does not understand the ramifications or scope of the plea. Moussaoui has demonstrated before that he does not understand the meaning of American legal terms, and Brinkema is probably concerned that Moussaoui may not understand the full implications of a guilty plea now, lawyers said. She is probably also trying to guard against the possibility that Moussaoui could enter a guilty plea and then try to withdraw it later, lawyers said. “This is a judge placed in a very difficult position and she’s trying to do her level best to make sure the man is treated fairly,” said Irwin Schwartz, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “She wants to make sure he knows what he’s doing and what he’s giving up by doing it.” Brinkema has hard choices ahead no matter what Moussaoui tells her at a scheduled plea hearing next week, lawyers said. If Moussaoui still wants to plead guilty, Brinkema can accept or reject the plea. She will probably base that decision on Moussaoui’s answers to a detailed series of questions asked of all federal defendants who plead guilty. “She can reject the plea if she doesn’t feel it’s knowing, voluntary and competent,” Cacheris said. If Brinkema rejects the plea, the government would presumably take its case to a jury whether Moussaoui chose to participate or not. If Brinkema allows the plea process to go forward, she would probably tell the government to summarize the case they would have made at trial. Moussaoui would then be asked to agree that prosecutors could prove their allegations. She could again cancel the plea deal if Moussaoui contradicts himself, Saltzburg said. If Brinkema accepts a guilty plea to the charges Moussaoui now faces, the government would then have a choice of whether to continue to seek the death penalty. Brinkema told Moussaoui that he could try to negotiate a deal with prosecutors that would spare him a death sentence. Brinkema could also put the entire process on hold for a fuller examination of Moussaoui’s competence. Brinkema has previously found Moussaoui competent to act as his own lawyer, but Moussaoui’s rambling statements in court filings had already given the judge cause to reconsider, lawyers said. Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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