Zacarias Moussaoui's Homer Simpson Defense

Terrorism on Trial

Zacarias Moussaoui's Homer Simpson Defense

Terrorism on Trial

Zacarias Moussaoui's Homer Simpson Defense
The law, lawyers, and the court.
July 18 2002 7:52 PM

Terrorism on Trial

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Who was it that once said, "You're not paranoid if they really are all out to get you"?

Because in the twirly world of Zacarias Moussaoui's head, his decision to plead guilty today to all the charges against him makes perfect sense: In his head, the judge is crazy and acting in concert with the prosecution and his stand-by defense team to have him executed. (President Bush is in on this, too.) He clearly trusts the prosecutors more than his own stand-by lawyers, asking again today to receive all pretrial discovery documents directly from the other side. (It's unclear why he thinks the federal prosecutors are uninterested in this conspiracy to kill him, even as they trip all over themselves trying to amend his indictment just so he's eligible for the death penalty.) In light of these facts, perhaps it makes sense that Moussaoui feels the only way to spare himself from being executed is by taking his story to the "people," who have included, variously, in his pleadings: the media, the federal grand jury, the French consul, and Europe in general.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.

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In light of all this paranoia, Moussaoui is interested in only two things: telling his story and doing absolutely everything he can to flout the judge. So his assumption—that if Judge Leonie M. Brinkema wants him to plead not guilty, he'd better do the exact opposite—actually makes perfect sense. You'd probably do the same if you were on trial in Upsidedown Land. You'd try to confess that you are indeed an al-Qaida terrorist while pleading guilty, in order to, um, save your life.

Today's hearing should have been a dull re-arraignment, the government having filed a third indictment that supersedes the last. This indictment still contains nothing but wildly circumstantial evidence that Moussaoui was an intended "20th hijacker." It still looks—as he claims—like he was just another "innocent" terrorist who's being wrongly blamed for Sept. 11. It does contain amended allegations that Moussaoui's behavior was "especially heinous, cruel and depraved." But the new language simply cures a possible defect in the original indictment, following a recent Supreme Court decision that suggested the grand jury needs to find such so-called "aggravating circumstances" for a death penalty to be constitutionally permissible.

Of course, with Moussaoui in the game, nothing is ever dull, and so after Judge Brinkema reads the new portions of the superseding indictment, she asks how he intends to plead. Moussaoui begins, "In the name of Allah …" and explains that in the name of Mohammed, he will not commit perjury and enters what he calls an "affirmative, or pure plea." He found it in Black's Law Dictionary. The judge attempts, based on some of his earlier motions, to explain to Moussaoui why he's confused about the significance of a not-guilty plea.

"I am not confused," he interrupts.

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Brinkema explains that his reluctance to plead not guilty evidently results from the fact that there are claims in the indictment "you do not dispute. You don't want to appear, in the eyes of the jury, not credible." She is trying to explain that he can't be charged with perjury for pleading not guilty, even if some of the government's claims are true.

But Moussaoui won't hear it. He's ready to put it all out there. "I was involved," he interrupts, "in an ongoing conspiracy, which started in 1995 and carries on to this day." He goes on to say that he is part of a group of people "who intend to commit terroristic acts." He is incriminating himself, and, as she's done so many times before, the judge tries to stop him. She says his so-called affirmative plea "doesn't exist under the federal rules." She tells him he has to plead guilty, or not. And, as she did when he tried to plead nolo contendere last month, she announces she's entering a plea of not guilty on his behalf.

There's a scuffle over whether Moussaoui needs more time to prepare for trial, now scheduled to begin Sept. 30. Moussaoui says he'd like a "recess" so he can consider it. Brinkema, annoyed, says he's not getting a recess and adds that she doesn't think he needs a continuance. Moussaoui cuts her off again. He's steaming mad: "I don't have outside legal assistance," he sputters (apparently forgetting about the five stand-by lawyers she's appointed). "I didn't have a printer until today." He calls his computer "aging" and says it would take him until the trial simply to load all the CD-ROMs the government has produced for his discovery requests. "This is a farce of justice!" he cries. As Moussaoui gets increasingly agitated the judge interrupts him: "All right."

"Everything is all right," he mocks.

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"Have a seat!" Brinkema commands.

"Yeah, yeah, have a seat," he parrots, giving a hint of the surly teen-age terrorist he must once have been.

The judge then twists herself into a judicial Cirque du Soleil performer, ordering the prosecutors to produce all the discovery materials to which Moussaoui is entitled, both in hard copies (they just shipped him over 70,000 pages) and also in a more organized form. When the government protests that it's an unfair burden to require them to help Moussaoui prepare for his trial, she snaps, "This is not an ordinary case." She next reminds Moussaoui that he has made the self-defeating choice to reject the various forensic experts recommended by his stand-by counsel: "The court doesn't find witnesses for a party." And she warns him to stop filing his crazy repetitive motions on issues she's already decided: "It may be construed by the court as evidence of your inability to defend yourself."

But just as she charitably assigns the government the task of helping Moussaoui prep for trial, he's back on his feet. "I want to address my plea," he says. And then, "I want to enter a plea of guilty because I want to save my life. … I have certain knowledge of 9/11." He wants to name names. He even explains why: so the "jury will be able to evaluate how much responsibility I have."

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He isn't finished: "I, Moussaoui Zacarias, in the interest to preserve my life, enter a plea of guilty ... I am a member of al-Qaida. I pledge bayat to Osama Bin Laden."

Judge Brinkema again tries to shut him up. The marshals are on their feet. It looks like she's ready to have him forcibly removed. She tries, again, to explain that he's incriminating himself. If he enters a guilty plea, it cannot be reversed. Moussaoui is raising his hands, as though in a hold-up. Brinkema, disgusted, tells him, "Put your hands down."

"I don't want them to jump on me," he says, referring to the 6-foot marshals flanking him.

The judge makes one last effort to explain that in entering a guilty plea, Moussaoui is "admitting to doing what the government says you did." He can't later pick and choose which allegations he meant to deny. (Why is he unwilling to perjure himself with a not-guilty plea because some allegations are true, but eager to admit to allegations he knows to be false? Anyone?) In a strong message that he's being an idiot, Brinkema tells him that it's "normal, in criminal cases, to plea bargain. Even in the most serious cases." She is trying to tell him that this information he's so eager to give the government for free is his only currency, that he should shut up and negotiate a deal for himself instead of blurting out everything he knows about al-Qaida while marching himself off to the electric chair. But he won't listen. He's too smart for her tricks. Alfred E. Neuman could negotiate this man a plea deal, but he tells her he won't let her "manipulate the system." She gives him a week to reconsider.

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He replies, "In another week's time, I will be declared insane," which forecloses the only real option most of us are still gunning for. She closes the hearing, asking him to take the week to see if he still wants to plead guilty. "Bet on me, I will," he snaps.

Remember that Simpsons episode, when Homer is licking the hallucinogenic toads and Bart calls to ask whether he's been licking toads again? Homer's answer, "I'm not not licking toads," is an anthem for 7-year-olds everywhere. Moussaoui's "guilty" plea today is just a modified double-Homer. He's not really pleading guilty. He still maintains he's innocent of the Sept. 11 plots. But he's going to show Brinkema with his absurd "I'm not not pleading not guilty." That'll teach her.

Even if it kills him.

Quite literally.