WASHINGTON -- The only person indicted in the United States in connection with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks plans to plead guilty to charges that could bring him the death penalty, two federal officials said yesterday.
Zacarias Moussaoui, whose behavior throughout the drawn-out case has raised questions about his mental competence, met yesterday with US District Judge Leonie Brinkema. Afterward, Brinkema pronounced the French citizen fit to enter a plea to the six-count indictment and scheduled a hearing for tomorrow in Alexandria, Va.
''The court finds that the defendant is fully competent to plead guilty to the indictment," Brinkema said in a brief order.
Moussaoui still could change his mind, which he did once before. But if he follows through, it will mark the latest twist in a convoluted, sometimes bizarre, case during which Moussaoui has fought with and insulted his lawyers, the judge, and prosecutors but also has had some surprising legal victories. The government has charged Moussaoui with being part of an Al Qaeda conspiracy to commit terrorism that included the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people.
The indictment accuses Moussaoui of conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, commit aircraft piracy, destroy aircraft, murder government employees, and destroy property. The first four charges carry a maximum sentence of death.
Moussaoui has acknowledged that he is an Al Qaeda member and has pledged his allegiance to terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. But he has consistently denied involvement in the Sept. 11 plot.
Moussaoui attorney Frank Dunham Jr. said he would not comment. His lawyers, however, opposed his first attempt to plead guilty in 2002, which he later withdrew, and have fought to remove the death penalty as a possible sentence.
Moussaoui's sentence would be determined in a separate legal proceeding that would follow any plea. Federal prosecutors plan to pursue the death penalty at that time, a government official said, noting that the government made no concessions and did not bargain with Moussaoui over a guilty plea. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the judge has ordered both sides not to discuss the case publicly.
Despite Brinkema's ruling yesterday, several lawyers said Moussaoui's decision only underscores questions about his competence. They recalled his first attempt to plead guilty, a hearing marked by confusing statements and contentious exchanges with the judge.
''I think his competence is in doubt here," said Peter Margulies, a law professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.
Moussaoui's lawyers still could try to appeal on their client's behalf, although a defendant typically waives his right to appeal when he enters a plea, Margulies said. Moussaoui was in US custody on Sept. 11, 2001, having been arrested the previous month after arousing suspicions at a Minnesota flight school.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the purported Sept. 11 mastermind, considered replacing the pilot of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania with Moussaoui, according to the Sept. 11 commission report. But Mohammed has told interrogators that Moussaoui actually was being considered for a second wave of attacks still in the planning stages.