A strategic choice that terrorism conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui made in a move to save his life — pleading guilty to six charges that he had a role in the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. — worked against him on Monday as a federal appeals court rejected all of his pleas for a new trial or a new sentencing.  His guilty plea turned out to be the recurring rationale for most of the key findings against him by the Fourth Circuit Court in Richmond, Va.  The 78-page opinion can be found here.

The three-judge panel’s ruling came in the only case so far in which the federal government prosecuted an individual for the 9/11 attacks, and may have provided some support for the Obama Administration’s argument that the civilian courts can handle such high-stakes terrorism prosecutions.  The Administration has chosen the civilian court route for five individuals charged with more direct roles in the 9/11 plot than Moussaoui was accused of carrying out.

Moussaoui pleaded guilty in 2005, shortly after the Supreme Court had refused to hear his challenge to an earlier Fourth Circuit Court ruling denying him a chance to call as witnesses other terrorism suspects to bolster his defense.  The jury, urged by Moussaoui to spare his life on the theory that he was owning up to his guilt, refused to vote for a death penalty, and he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of release.

Many of Moussaoui’s points in his appeal to the Fourth Circuit focused on his claims that his guilty plea was invalid, because of a wide array of claimed flaws in the trial proceedings.  But the panel ruled that it had no authority to rule on some of those, because the guilty plea put them beyond reach on appeal, and it ruled on others than Moussaoui and his volunteer lawyers simply had not made their case that the plea could not stand.

One of the key issues that hung over the entire prosecution of Moussaoui — how the government could proceed in civilian court in a case involving a mountain of classified evidence — proved to be of little difficulty for the Circuit Court panel.  It upheld District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema’s handling of most of those complications.

The lengthy opinion was heavily composed of facts specific to the Moussaoui case, and thus appeared to have made little new law that would impair either the defense or the prosecution in future terrorism trials in civilian courts.   Because Moussouai had opted to plead guilty, several of his claims about trial procedures might carry more weight if a future terrorist’s trial goes all the way to a verdict, rather than being somewhat short-circuited with a guilty plea.

Posted in Detainee Litigation, What's Happening Now