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Moussaoui trial a twisted legal journey

The trial of  Zacarias Moussaoui has taken a strangely winding road in the more than four years since he was indicted on terrorism charges. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

The prosecution's star witness was the defendant himself. The crucial testimony for the defense came from a government agent. And the trial was nearly derailed by an overzealous lawyer from the Transportation Security Administration who improperly coached witnesses.

The trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person ever to face an American jury for the 9/11 attacks, has taken a strangely winding road in the more than four years since he was indicted on terrorism charges.  Early in the legal journey, he proposed to plead guilty, then backed off, then did plead.

Along the way, he briefly acted as his own lawyer, producing a blizzard of court filings filled with insults directed at the judge, Leonie Brinkema.  "The curse of Allah is and be upon you," he often wrote, accusing her of suffering from "Islamophobia with a complex of gender inferiority." Because he never got a grip on the legal issues and instead maintained a stream of abusive tirades, she revoked permission for Moussaoui to represent himself.

Twice the case was delayed by appeals over how much access Moussaoui's lawyers should have to captured al-Qaida figures held overseas, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, referred to by his initials, KSM, and considered by U.S. intelligence officials to be the "emir or mastermind" of the suicide hijackings.

In the end, lawyers for both sides relied on summaries of what the al-Qaida figures told American interrogators.  And though the substitute testimony was gathered and prepared by the government, it turned out to be most helpful to Moussaoui's lawyers.

"KSM denied that Moussaoui ever had a 9/11 role," the summary said.  He instead "intended for Moussaoui to participate in a follow-on attack in the U.S., unrelated to the 9/11 attacks," it said. That was the same description Moussaoui himself gave nearly a year ago when he pleaded guilty. He was to fly a plane into the White House, he said, suggesting his mission was somehow to force the government to release an Islamic cleric convicted of plotting the first terror attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

His own startling testimony
The oddest moment in the trial come on March 27, when Moussaoui took the stand himself, startling the courtroom with a very different version of why he came to the U.S. in early 2001 to take jetliner pilot training.  Moussaoui claimed he was, after all, part of the original 9/11 plot. His role, he said — one personally approved by bin Laden — was to fly a plane into the White House.  Even more surprising was his claim that among his fellow crew members was to be Richard Reid, the man arrested in December 2001 wearing a shoe bomb in an attempt to blow up a plane flying to Miami from Paris.

Moussaoui said that when he was arrested 25 days before the 9/11 attacks, he lied to the FBI so the rest of the operation could go ahead.  That may have been his most damaging statement, since it fit squarely with the case made by prosecutors: They argued that his lies led directly to deaths on Sept. 11, 2001. If Moussaoui had told the truth when he was arrested, they told the jury, and admitted he was an al-Qaida member taking flight training, the FBI might have discovered the 19 hijackers.  Or at the very least, prosecutors claimed, airline security would have been increased and at least one of the hijackers might have been stopped at the airport.

Deciding between truth, fabrication
By the time they delivered their closing arguments, prosecutors were in the unusual position of telling the jury that nothing Moussaoui had ever said, when he was arrested or when he confessed, could be believed. Only this week, they said, did he begin to tell the truth.

Moussaoui's own lawyer, on the other hand, insisted his story told from the witness stand was a fabrication.  There never was to be a fifth plane hijacked on 9/11, and the government never found any evidence to suggest there was, much less that Moussaoui — who never had any contact with the 9/11 hijackers while they were in the U.S. — was to be any part of it.

"He was an al-Qaida hanger-on," said Moussaoui's court-appointed lawyer, Edward MacMahon.  "His plan to fly a plane into the White House was nothing more than a dream."

"Everything about this trial has been strange," said one court official. "And it just keeps getting stranger."