The Moussaoui Case
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JIM LEHRER: Zacarias Moussaoui’s pretrial hearing: "New York Times" reporter Philip Shenon was in the federal courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia, today. Philip, can you hear me there?
PHILIP SHENON: I can, indeed.
JIM LEHRER: Your earpiece fell out at a very inopportune time.
PHILIP SHENON: It happens.
JIM LEHRER: Can you hear me all right?
PHILIP SHENON: I can.
JIM LEHRER: All right. First, refresh us on Moussaoui, who he is, what he is specifically charged with having done.
PHILIP SHENON: Moussaoui is a Frenchman of Moroccan descent. He is described by the Justice Department as the man who was intended to be the 20th hijacker on September 11. He was apprehended on immigration charges a few weeks before September 11, and on the day of the attacks, he was in a jail cell in Minnesota.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, what was the purpose of this hearing today in Alexandria?
PHILIP SHENON: It was to be a reasonably routine hearing on the conditions of his imprisonment at a jail cell in Virginia. But as soon as he walked through the door, the courthouse today and took a seat, his hand shot up immediately. He was recognized by the judge to speak, and at that moment, he announced he wanted to fire his lawyers.
JIM LEHRER: Why did he…what did he say the reason was? Why did he want to fire them?
PHILIP SHENON: He said they weren’t acting in his best interest. He said they were conspiring against him with the government, with government prosecutors and with the judge to see him executed. He said he had requested from the beginning of this process a Muslim lawyer, but that had been always denied him.
JIM LEHRER: Now, the lawyers he has, tell us who they are and how they were selected.
PHILIP SHENON: The lawyers are a government public defender for the Eastern District of Virginia, a colleague from the same office who specializes in death penalty cases, and a private lawyer from the same area.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Moussaoui made, as I read the wires today, Moussaoui made the case that everybody involved then is an employee of the federal government.
PHILIP SHENON: Exactly. He said this was a large conspiracy that from the highest reaches of the Justice Department through the federal court system to his own attorneys who are paid for by the government.
JIM LEHRER: Now, he said a lot more too, did he not, about the United States? Tell us what he said in addition to that.
PHILIP SHENON: Well, he was given a 50-minute platform to offer his views on his own defense situation, and also on Islam and what he considers to be the corruption of the American criminal justice system. He took the opportunity to say he wanted to see the destruction of the United States, Israel, Russia, several other countries.
JIM LEHRER: What did he say about September 11 and any possible involvement in that?
PHILIP SHENON: Well, he didn’t directly address September 11. But he did embrace what is the prosecution’s view of him, which is that he is a Muslim extremist who supports Osama bin Laden’s call for the destruction of the United States.
JIM LEHRER: But did he say "Hey, I’m not guilty of the crimes that I’ve been charged with" or anything close to that?
PHILIP SHENON: He had quite a strong understanding of the American criminal justice system. He said he knew he was entitled to the presumption of innocence and he would fight for it. And he was prepared to fight for his life.
JIM LEHRER: Now, was this something he had written out, was prepared and he read from, or did it seem like a spontaneous, emotional thing, what? Describe it.
PHILIP SHENON: He had extensive notes. I believe he had a written statement as well.
JIM LEHRER: Now, what was his tone? What was his demeanor?
PHILIP SHENON: He was quite calm but clearly quite agitated and angry. He proved himself to be very intelligent and quite fluent with the English language.
JIM LEHRER: And how is he…who was in the courtroom? I mean describe the scene. We’ve got some, while you have been talking, we have been showing some drawings. But give us a feel for who was there for the hearing.
PHILIP SHENON: Well, you had a crowd full of reporters for one thing. You had the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia and many of his staff. You had this large defense team with the lawyers and the investigators. And keep in mind, as we all went in there, we expected this to be a reasonably routine hearing about the conditions of his imprisonment, the specifics of whether or not he had enough light in his jail cell or too much light, whether or not he was to be granted access to computers. But almost the minute he walked into that room, jaws dropped as that hand was thrust up to make a statement for the judge.
JIM LEHRER: Now on the specifics of his desire to get rid of his lawyers. What did his lawyers say about this?
PHILIP SHENON: His lawyers said they, to some extent, saw this coming. They had difficulty from the get-go establishing real trust with Mr. Moussaoui. They did argue that as this process goes forward and if there is serious consideration to allowing Mr. Moussaoui to defend himself, he should be subjected to a psychiatric examination first.
JIM LEHRER: Now, what was the prosecution’s position on this?
PHILIP SHENON: The prosecution didn’t have much to say today. They said they wouldn’t stand in the way of Mr. Moussaoui defending himself, although they did ask to see whatever psychiatric report is prepared before he is allowed to represent himself.
JIM LEHRER: And that’s what the judge finally decided, right, didn’t she? Tell us about the judge and what she finally said when this was all said and done today.
PHILIP SHENON: The judge sat back and let Mr. Moussaoui speak his piece. As I say, this went on for almost 50 minutes. And she rather calmly told him that…suggested to him that he was making a big mistake; that he needed to think through whether or not he really wanted defend himself, given the complexity of the criminal justice system. But she said that ultimately, unless a psychiatric tells him otherwise, she was likely to grant his wish to defend himself.
JIM LEHRER: And what is the next step in this? Take us through what happens next and then next.
PHILIP SHENON: Well, we have many things going on at once here. We’ll have a flurry of activity over this question of Mr. Moussaoui defending himself. You’ll have a psychiatric examination sometime in the near future…rather we’ll have a psychiatric examination if Mr. Moussaoui permits it. He suggested that he may not permit it.
At the same time we’ll have lots of back and forth on the question of the death penalty. That is the big issue hanging over the case right now. The Justice Department through the United States Attorney’s Office is seeking the death penalty and the defense lawyers who may or may not now be representing Mr. Moussaoui were prepared to argue against it.
JIM LEHRER: Didn’t Mr. Moussaoui say he wanted the judge to try him, that he didn’t want to have a jury trial?
PHILIP SHENON: Towards the end, he said that after some deliberation, he had decided that it would be best for him if he were tried by the judge and not by a jury. He didn’t…he suggested that the Justice Department would attempt to overwhelm the jury with information that would make it hard for them to do anything but convict him and sentence him to death. He suggested a judge would be able to understand the material in a way a jury could not.
JIM LEHRER: But the bottom line is, you’re saying, Phil, there are many, many steps and a long way to go before each and every one of these things are resolved, right?
PHILIP SHENON: Oh, tremendous distance here. There have been discussions of beginning this trial in the fall. I think that is increasingly unlikely, especially if Mr. Moussaoui essentially has to begin from scratch to prepare his own defense.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Phil Shenon, thank you very much.
PHILIP SHENON: Thank you.