April 21, 2005


Moussaoui: a window on terror trials: Suspect is scheduled to plead guilty Friday in a bizarre case raising questions about how justice system handles terrorism. (Peter Grier and Faye Bowers, 4/22/05, The Christian Science Monitor)

If nothing else, the bizarre trial of Zacarias Moussaoui - the only person in the US charged in connection with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 - may have highlighted the difficulties of trying suspected terrorists in established civilian courts.

Mr. Moussaoui himself has been erratic and belligerent. He has filed rambling letters with the court railing against US policies and castigating all manner of public figures, at times inaccurately. For instance, he once referred to ex-Attorney General John Ashcroft, a Republican, as "the Democratic jerk."

The case has also raised serious legal issues, notably the degree to which an accused terrorist can have access to the testimony of other imprisoned terrorist suspects.

Now Moussaoui is scheduled to stand up Friday in open court in Arlington, Va., where he is expected to (again) plead guilty. Judge Leonie Brinkema has ruled that he is mentally competent to make such a plea, and if he does in fact do so he could be sentenced to death.

Yet the nature of his ties to the Sept. 11 hijackers may remain unresolved. It is possible that "everyone has come to the conclusion, including the judge, that there is no good way to get rid of this case," says Juliette Kayyem, a homeland security and law-enforcement specialist at Harvard University.

No one holds that Moussaoui is an innocent.

So what's the problem? A guilty man is being punished. Smells like justice.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 21, 2005 5:57 PM

I don't see why when the prisoner wants to plead guilty there's difficulty for the court. Seems like a win-win.

Posted by: pj at April 21, 2005 6:03 PM

"no good way to get rid of this case"

Yes there is.

I have to give him his due though. He was sharpe enough to know that Democrat and jerk go together like buttermilk and cornbread.

Posted by: h-man at April 21, 2005 6:10 PM

Modern criminal law isn't about guilt but gamesmanship.

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2005 6:36 PM

Well, actually there is an issue here. The legal system operates under certain cultural assumptions that most of us are largely unconscious of, but which can throw everything out of whack very easily if they aren't adhered to or shared by the participants. They can leave the legal system scrambling in self-defence. A few are:

A) Courts, lawyers and litigation are unpleasant things to be avoided if possible. The natural impulse is to avoid or shorten it. There is one culture I won't mention by name that seems to throw up a lot of people who think litigation is jolly good fun and who will litigate and appeal forever, often at great cost. A loss at trial throws them no more than a solo homer by the visitng team in the first inning. The law seems to them to be a substitute for golf.

B) That people will at least be aware of when they are and are not telling the truth. There are plenty of people who lie in court but when you meet someone who literally doesn't know what a lie is you have a tricky problem. Again, no names, but there are cultures out there that seem to foster highly personalized notions of objective, factual truth;

C)That the authority or legitimacy of the court is accepted. Certain members of a faith I won't name but which has quite erotic notions of life in the hereafter for the faithful can cause pure havoc by questioning everything from the oath to the judges credentials to their lawyer's role, etc., etc. and the system has to defend itself on its own terms, which means endless delay, procedural rulings, hearing both sides, etc. i.e. It can never just say: "You are a jerk, so off with your head!"

This is not without precedent and perhaps those courts and judges challenged by Islamic fundamentalists could respond creatively with a little historical guidance. For hundreds of years the law was that a convicted felon lost all his property to the Crown. To protect their families, some accused simply refused to plead. In response, the law developed a cute little persuasive technique called peine forte et dure whereby heavy stones were placed on the accused until he pled. If he was brave enough, he died from being crushed, but he died unconvicted and his family inherited.

Posted by: Peter B at April 21, 2005 7:12 PM