The Trials of Self-Defense ; Moussaoui Case, Which Resumes Thursday, Tests Limits of a Terror Suspect's Access to Legal Help

By Warren Richey writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 24, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Trials of Self-Defense ; Moussaoui Case, Which Resumes Thursday, Tests Limits of a Terror Suspect's Access to Legal Help


Warren Richey writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


You don't actually have to go to law school and pass the bar exam to know that it is probably a bad idea for a defendant representing himself in a capital punishment case to repeatedly belittle the integrity of the judge.

Nonetheless, this seems to be a frequent feature of the highly unusual legal strategy emerging in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui. At one point, he refers in legal memos to US District Judge Leoni Brinkema by placing the letters "SS" before her name, to suggest she presides in court like a Nazi shock troop commander.

"SS Brinkema do[es] not want me to speak out to anybody before she declare[s] me crazy," he says in one of many hand-written motions filed in the case. "Stalin also declared his enem[ies] crazy before killing them."

Mr. Moussaoui's performance so far in court, where he is on trial for allegedly being the 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks, has prompted many analysts to dust off the old legal saw about how anyone who serves as his own lawyer has a fool for a client.

But beyond all the rantings of this Muslim fundamentalist, the trial may be important for generations to come. It will test how far the US government may go in limiting the legal knowledge and expertise available to a criminal defendant deemed a potential risk to national security.

He is expected back in federal court in Alexandria, Va., on Thursday, after Judge Brinkema gave him a week to reconsider whether he really wants to plead guilty to a six-count indictment that carries a maximum penalty of death.

But there is more going on in the Zaccarias Moussaoui trial than just the high-octane rhetoric of a self-proclaimed Al Qaeda member and supporter of Osama bin Laden who deeply distrusts just about everyone involved in his trial - particularly his own court- appointed lawyers. (He says they are "just a horde of blood sucker[s] in disguise.")

If Moussaoui seems particularly unschooled on the finer points of federal law - by attempting to plead no contest earlier this month and trying last week to enter a partial guilty plea - it isn't just because he never attended law school. It is also because federal prosecutors and Judge Brinkema have denied him access to the one lawyer he says he trusts.

Houston lawyer Charles Freeman, who is also a Muslim, met several times with Moussaoui in June to discuss legal issues. But federal prosecutors put an end to the meetings. They insisted that if Mr. Freeman was going to offer legal advice to Moussaoui he must file a formal request to the judge to act as a lawyer for Moussaoui and must also obtain approval and clearances from the US government.

Freeman objected to having to submit to a US investigation before he could have a series of informal conversations with Moussaoui about federal law. He didn't want to represent Moussaoui, he said, he just wanted to help him understand the implications of various legal tactics.

If the government had "the expectation that I would merely roll over and play dead for them intellectually or otherwise, then they were sadly mistaken," Freeman wrote in a motion to the judge asking permission to continue to talk to Moussaoui. …

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