RAY SUAREZ: The sentencing trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in America in connection with the 9/11 attacks, took a dramatic turn today. Against the advice of his defense team, Moussaoui took the stand and told the court he was supposed to fly a fifth hijacked jet on September 11th into the White House.
His further admission that he knew two planes were to fly into the World Trade Center contradicted statements made when he pled guilty last year.
For more on what happened inside the courtroom, we're joined by Reuters correspondent Deborah Charles. And for analysis of the impact today's events will have on the case going forward, we turn to Paul Callan, a former prosecutor.
Deborah Charles, was it evident from the outset that Zacarias Moussaoui was going to tell a different story about his involvement with 9/11 today?
DEBORAH CHARLES: Well, you never know what's going to happen when he starts talking in the courtroom. So I don't think any of us knew what to expect.
I think we were all surprised, actually, that he was so calm and that he managed to -- he just sat there. He followed the court's rules, and he answered in a very matter of fact way throughout. So we didn't really know what to expect. I don't know if anyone had expected this.
RAY SUAREZ: As of today, what is Moussaoui's version of events and his connection to al-Qaida and 9/11?
DEBORAH CHARLES: Well, he says he was supposed to pilot the fifth plane that was aimed at the White House. He said the only person that he knew that was going to be in his crew was Richard Reid.
He also mentioned some others that were Yemeni nationals who had been living in Kenya, but he didn't give any details of them. He said that they were part of the whole plot; he didn't know any of the details.
He was kind of secluded from everybody else while in the United States, so he couldn't -- he had never seen any of the September 11th hijackers in the United States or contacted them.
RAY SUAREZ: As far as you're aware, has he ever mentioned Richard Reid, the convicted shoe-bomber now serving a life sentence, before?
DEBORAH CHARLES: He's mentioned him in pleadings. When he was acting as his own lawyer, he was filing a whole bunch of briefs or pleadings to the court. And in them, he mentioned everybody, including Richard Reid, shoe-bomber, as he called him. And I don't remember exactly what he talked about, but he did mention his name at least once or so.
RAY SUAREZ: There was an interesting exchange with prosecution lawyers. Rob Spencer asked, "You lied so the plan could go forward." And Moussaoui affirmed, "That's correct." Why was that a critical question and answer for the prosecution?
DEBORAH CHARLES: Well, basically the prosecution is trying to prove that Moussaoui lied to the FBI when he was arrested three weeks before September 11th and that those lies caused the deaths of at least one person on September 11th. So this was -- I mean, he was walking right into their argument by saying, yes, he lied.
RAY SUAREZ: And in previous versions that Moussaoui has told, in other court actions, in papers, in his own guilty plea, had he ever made that specific admission before?
DEBORAH CHARLES: No, I mean, when he pleaded guilty, he said he was meant to be in a second wave of attacks. He said he was supposed to fly a plane into the White House, but he said it was a part of a second wave of attacks. And he denied being involved in the September 11th hijackings. So this is a complete change from what he had said back in April of last year when he pleaded guilty.
RAY SUAREZ: If Moussaoui's lawyers have said all along they didn't want him to testify, how did he get on the stand? Did they try to stop him right up until the very end?
DEBORAH CHARLES: Yes, they did, actually. Right before he -- well, first of all, it's his constitutional right to testify, and he's made it very clear that he wants to testify.
He said it during jury selection, and he said it every day. He says it all the time. So everyone knew he wanted to testify.
But right before he went up, his lawyers got up and asked the judge basically to not along allow him to testify, because they said he wasn't competent to testify, not for mental health reasons, but because he may not know what is a lie or, basically, he may be lying because that's part of what an al-Qaida operative does: You lie to protect your operation.
So they were saying, how will we know that he's actually respecting this court and telling the truth?
RAY SUAREZ: Paul Callan, let's turn to you now. Were you surprised that Zacarias Moussaoui took the stand today?
PAUL CALLAN: Yeah, I was shocked that he took the stand. And more so than that, I was shocked at the substance of his testimony.
You know, Ray, usually in a death penalty case, there's only one reason for a defendant to take the stand, and that's to get sympathy from the jury. And you do that by showing remorse for your crime.
And you then hope, of course, that the jurors will decide on life in prison instead of death. Instead, he implicated himself in this conspiracy. He's linked himself to the 9/11 deaths, and I think he's really destroyed the defense case.
RAY SUAREZ: We're having slight technical problems with New York, but we'll soldier on.
Does this in any way, in a mechanical, in a legal sense, invalidate or threaten his own guilty plea? He had to attest to certain things and sign that guilty plea in a capital case, and he had to attest that certain things were true. Today, he contradicted his own story on the stand.
PAUL CALLAN: Well, theoretically, I think you could say that he's contradicted his own guilty plea, but it would be highly unusual for the court to set aside a guilty plea based upon subsequent court testimony.
I really think the only thing that's going to happen here is the plea is going to remain in place, and the jury is going to have a lot greater reason to decide to impose the death penalty in this case.
And one other factor, as well: He always had a strong appeal in this case; he may have weakened his prospect on appeal by taking the stand.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, as a matter of strategy, where does this leave the defense?
PAUL CALLAN: Well, the defense is really in a bind because they've made commitments and promises to this jury, and now they've been shown to be liars. So the only thing they really can do from a factual standpoint, I think, is to argue in the end that Moussaoui is mentally unbalanced and he deserves sympathy from the jurors and that someone with some sort of a mental problem should not be put to death.
But, of course, there's no technical insanity defense before the jury, so they'll have trouble arguing this, but it's really the only place left for them to go.
RAY SUAREZ: For weeks now, stories that have been coming out of the Alexandria courthouse have talked about a prosecution in disarray, a prosecution in severe difficulty. In today's court testimony, did we just see a death penalty defendant reach across the courthouse and save a prosecution's case?
PAUL CALLAN: Oh, he absolutely did. You know, this prosecution team has been criticized by the judge. They've been excoriated in the press for the way witnesses have been prepared and, of course, for some problems in so-called coaching of witnesses.
And now he's really handed his own guilt to them on a silver platter in the death penalty portion of the case. He's done something that no one else could do. So the prosecutors have to be very, very pleased that he took the witness stand today.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, in legal terms, does this statement all by itself allow the prosecution to say it's met its burden? Judge Leonie Brinkema said that the death penalty was in force, if it could be proven that, through his actions when under arrest by the FBI, he contributed to the death of a single victim on September 11th.
PAUL CALLAN: I think that defense attorneys will still argue, Ray, that the statement alone does not yet meet that standard, because, while he admits that he was supposed to fly a plane into the White House, he still remains somewhat vague as to what he knew about the plan concerning the World Trade Center.
In other words, he said he didn't know precisely when the towers were supposed to be hit. So they'll argue in the end that this doesn't link him in a sufficient way to the specific acts of terrorism on 9/11.
But we're talking about a jury here, and if this case gets submitted to the jury, the jury is going to be looking at him as the guy who was supposed to pilot the plane into the White House, who knew of the 9/11 attacks.
And, as a matter of fact, in his testimony, he said, as he sat in prison and he heard of the fires at the World Trade Center, he knew immediately that it was part of the plan, part of the conspiracy that he's charged with. So this is really devastating testimony against the defendant, Zacarias Moussaoui.
RAY SUAREZ: Deborah Charles, has the defense made it clear whether it's going to question Zacarias Moussaoui while he's on the stand?
DEBORAH CHARLES: Oh, it already did. They started because -- this is the defense's case right now, so they called him to the stand. Because it's his side, he's allowed to testify, so they questioned him for about half an hour. Then it went to the prosecution and back, and they already did question him.
But what they did this afternoon after he finished testifying is they brought forward some testimony from an al-Qaida operative, the guy who was -- Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was the mastermind behind this whole plot, who basically refuted everything Moussaoui said. He said he wasn't meant to be part of the attacks.
So I think that's what the defense is going to try and do now for the next day or however long they have left, to try and refute what Moussaoui said.
RAY SUAREZ: And has Judge Brinkema signaled when the jury may be getting this case?
DEBORAH CHARLES: Yes, she's told them probably by the end of the week. She's saying Wednesday, Thursday. The trial could go to the jury, so soon.
RAY SUAREZ: Deborah Charles at the federal courthouse, Paul Callan, thank you both very much.
PAUL CALLAN: Nice to be here. Thank you.
DEBORAH CHARLES: Thank you.