TOPICS > Politics

The Moussaoui Case

June 13, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST


GWEN IFILL: The alleged 20th hijacker, Zaccarias Moussaoui, can represent himself. We get more from New York Times reporter Philip Shenon. He was at the federal courthouse in Alexandria this afternoon. Welcome, Phil.

PHILIP SHENON: Good evening.

GWEN IFILL: So, Phil, help us — why would Moussaoui want to represent himself?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, there are two explanations. One is — he thinks he can do a better job than his court-appointed lawyers. Or secondly, in the alternative, that many trial lawyers fear, is that he wants to turn this into a show trial where he can make the courtroom a platform for his fundamentalist beliefs.

GWEN IFILL: Take us inside the courtroom today. What did he actually say to the court?

PHILIP SHENON: Many things. Much of the hour, forty-five-minute hearing was a back and forth between the judge in the case and Moussaoui, explaining why he felt he was competent to represent himself and the strategy that… or at least giving a preview of the strategy he would follow, which is he is insisting that he had no contact with any of the other 19 hijackers on September 11, and he says there is physical evidence that proves that he’s been under surveillance for a very long time and that the United States government knows he’s not involved in the conspiracy.

GWEN IFILL: Did he present any of that physical evidence?

PHILIP SHENON: He attempted to. The judge stopped him, and said that was an issue for another day.

GWEN IFILL: So what would be the meaning of that? We have no way of knowing whether he was just making that up or talking out of his head, or did his lawyers have anything to add to that?

PHILIP SHENON: They had nothing to add to it. But we should be clear, we have no reason to believe we are being told the truth at this point. He does say that in 1998, a house in which he was living in London was raided by British agents and that he says that in August of last year, when he was arrested, there was physical evidence that would show that he was under surveillance or had been under surveillance since his earliest days in the U.S. by the U.S. Government, presumably by the FBI. If any bit of that is true, it’s pretty alarming, but again, we don’t have any reason at this point to believe it is true.

GWEN IFILL: Now, even though the judge is going to allow him to represent himself, he has had representation up until this point — public defenders or people who were appointed by the court to defend him. What did they have to say about this request today?

PHILIP SHENON: They had urged the judge strongly not to allow Moussaoui to represent himself. They say on the basis of their many hours spent with him, that he believe that he may well be mentally ill. And we should point out that all three men are well-respected in the Virginia district in which they work, and one of them is a nationally renowned expert in defending people accused of crimes that carry the death penalty. He had a very experienced team, a team he’s now fired.

GWEN IFILL: So how did the judge decide that he was not mentally ill?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, the judge had a report from a court-appointed psychiatrist, an experienced psychiatrist, who said that on the basis of a two-hour interview with Moussaoui and review of the courthouse and the jailhouse records, it appeared to him that Moussaoui was mentally competent and was acting knowingly.

GWEN IFILL: Was it based on that report that the judge decided today to allow Moussaoui to represent himself?

PHILIP SHENON: Largely, yes.

GWEN IFILL: So what happens next? Well, take us back inside the courtroom. We’ll get to what happens next in a minute. What was he like in court? What was that like?

PHILIP SHENON: He is a very intelligent man, very articulate, he has a very strong command of English. He speaks in heavily accented English, but it is very clear. And he has an understanding of an awful lot of the vocabulary of the legal community and demonstrated that he’s done an awful lot of reading about the law. In many ways, he is more intelligent than a lot of lawyers we see practicing in a lot of courthouses around the country. He was perhaps less agitated at this hearing than he was at the last hearing.

You’ll recall that in April, when he made this request to fire his lawyers, he called for the destruction of the United States and Israel and made clear that he embraced a lot of the what would be considered Muslim radicalism.

GWEN IFILL: And wasn’t that part of the reason why his lawyers were asking for further psychological tests?

PHILIP SHENON: They did indeed. You know, they were obviously offended by the concept that Mr. Moussaoui was presenting, that they were working hand in glove with the government to see him executed. They said that was probably evidence of mental illness on his part.

GWEN IFILL: So who else was in the courtroom today — any relatives of Moussaoui, any supporters of his cause or detractors?

PHILIP SHENON: There was his mother. His mother traveled here from France. She brought along with her a lawyer, an American lawyer, an Arab American lawyer she had wanted her son to take on as his counsel. Her son has refused to do that. He won’t even meet with this lawyer. There was one moment in the courtroom that was an interesting moment between mother and son when Moussaoui turned and smiled at her — the only moment he showed any hint of affection in the courtroom today.

GWEN IFILL: Earlier this week, the same judge ruled that he would not have access to classified evidence in order to mount his own defense or for anyone else to mount his defense. How much more difficult does it make it for him to defend himself?

PHILIP SHENON: An awful lot more difficult, and the judge reminded him of that repeatedly in the courtroom today. You know, he will not… he’s a terrorism suspect. There’s no way he’s going to get a government security clearance, so there’s no way he’s ever going to be able to see classified evidence against him, even if that evidence might be exculpatory, it might prove that he’s not guilty of these crimes.

GWEN IFILL: So from what Moussaoui said in his own defense today, could you tell whether he is basically assuming that he’s not going to get a fair trial here?

PHILIP SHENON: I think on the basis of his belief about the American criminal justice system and the American government and the American people, I think we are certainly led to believe he is going into this believing he’s not going to get a fair trial. He’s going to do whatever he can however, he says, to try to save his own life.

GWEN IFILL: Does he sound like he’s a martyr for his cause?

PHILIP SHENON: I don’t know if I’m capable of saying that. He does sound like a very committed radical.

GWEN IFILL: I just mean using his words. I don’t want to you read his mind. But let’s talk about this. Has he ever, while he was in court, been asked or responded to the question, for instance, of why he was taking those flying lessons?

PHILIP SHENON: No. No, there’s been no discussion of that. There’s been no opportunity for him to discuss that. We did, at the last court hearing, get from him a 15-minute discourse, sometimes rambling, but sometimes very coherent, in which he did explain his religious beliefs, however, and his deep devotion to Islam.

GWEN IFILL: Now back to that what happens next question. Do we expect the judge to rule, for instance, on the death penalty issue?

PHILIP SHENON: That’s the next big question in front of us, and that will probably be decided in the next several weeks, and the judge said she heard all she needed to hear on that issue and she’d provide some written decision in the near future.

The next big court filing may be one for Moussaoui himself — we can expect that probably in the next couple of days — in which he will outline this physical evidence that he says shows that he’s been under surveillance for a long time and that the government knows he’s not part of the September 11 conspiracy.

GWEN IFILL: Okay, Phil Shenon, thanks a lot for helping us out.