Judge denies Moussaoui effort to withdraw plea

WASHINGTON - A judge has denied a request to withdraw his guilty plea by Zacarias Moussaoui, who was sentenced last week to life in prison for conspiracy in connection with the September 11 attacks.

Moussaoui had asked District Judge Leonie Brinkema to allow him to withdraw his plea and said he lied when he testified that he was meant to be part of the hijacking plot.

But Brinkema issued an order denying the request based on a federal rule that prohibits a defendant from withdrawing a guilty plea after he is sentenced.

"Because defendant was sentenced on May 4, 2006, his motion is too late and must be denied on this basis only," Brinkema wrote in her order.

Moussaoui, 37, said in an affidavit filed with the motion that he had pleaded guilty against the advice of his lawyers because his understanding of the US legal system was "completely flawed."

"Because I now see that it is possible that I can receive a fair trial, even with Americans as jurors, and that I can have the opportunity to prove that I did not have any knowledge of and was not a member of the plot to hijack planes and crash them into buildings on September 11, 2001, I wish to withdraw my guilty plea and ask the court for a new trial to prove my innocence of the September 11 plot," he said in the affidavit.

Last week a jury of nine men and three women decided that Moussaoui, the only person charged in a US court for the hijacked airliner attacks, should go to prison for life rather than be executed.

Moussaoui's court-appointed lawyers - who rarely speak to their client - said in a footnote that they knew of the rule prohibiting withdrawal of a guilty plea but filed the motion anyway "given their problematic relationship with Moussaoui."

Over the past four years, Moussaoui tried several times to fire his lawyers and said they were part of a conspiracy to kill him.

When Moussaoui pleaded guilty to six counts of conspiracy in April 2005, he said he was an al Qaeda operative and was supposed to be a part of a second wave of hijackings.

But the Frenchman of Moroccan descent, who was arrested three weeks before the September 11 attacks, changed his story when he testified during his two-month sentencing trial. He said he was supposed to have piloted a fifth plane into the White House on September 11.

In the affidavit, Moussaoui said he had lied when he testified in court.

"I have never met Mohamed Atta and, while I may have seen a few of the other hijackers at the guest house, I never knew them or anything about their operation," he said. During his testimony, Moussaoui said he knew or recognized most of the September 11 hijackers - some from when he worked at an al Qaeda guest house in Afghanistan.

Moussaoui said he was "extremely surprised" when the jury did not return a verdict of death.

"I had thought that I would be sentenced to death based on the emotions and anger toward me for the deaths on September 11," he said.

- REUTERS

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