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American Morning

Big Question: Should Judge or Jury Decide Fate of So-Called 20th Hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui?

Aired April 24, 2002 - 09:05   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: The "Big Question" this hour, should a judge or jury decide the fate of the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui? Well on Monday he turned a routine hearing into a 55- minute rant, charging his lawyers as being part of government conspiracy to execute him and demanding to represent himself at trial. A judge has ordered psychiatric exam before she rules on his request. Former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder says letting Moussaoui defend himself in his own terror trial is a nightmare scenario. And Eric Holder joins us now from Washington. Welcome to AM. Good to see you.


ZAHN: Is Zacarias Moussaoui nuts?

HOLDER: I suspect he's not nuts. I suspect he is a zealot however. And I think he will use that zealotry to really wreck what could have been an orderly trial. I think he'll probably try to use the trial as a propaganda base to spouse (ph) the views that he holds and the view of Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden and that's why I think it's a possible nightmare scenario.

ZAHN: Hasn't he already done that in a 55-minute rant the other day? I'm going to put up on the screen some of the things he said when he just went on and on and on. Among others, he said America I'm ready to fight in your Don Kong fight even with both hands tied behind my back in court. I pray Allah, the powerful, for the return of the Islamic emirates of Afghanistan in the destruction of the United States of America. Should the judge have allowed him to go on and on with this rant?

HOLDER: Well, I know the judge. Judge Brinkema (ph). She and I started working together at the Justice Department within about a week or so. And I think that you've got to let him get at least a little of that out of his system, allow him an opportunity to express those things. There was no harm done there in any real sense. There was no jury there.

However, when - I mean if you thought that was bad, imagine him giving an opening statement. Imagine him questioning witnesses. Imagine him giving a closing statement to a jury where he will essential be unrestraint. The judge can try to sit on him to a certain extent but if he's going to represents himself, there's a certain amount of leeway that he has to have. And imagine him in that context and how he could wreck, as I said, what might have otherwise been an orderly proceeding.

ZAHN: Even though you made it clear that the jury wasn't in the courtroom that day, might part of the motivation for the judge have been to let this guy just destroy himself?

HOLDER: Oh I don't think that was the intention of the judge. Though, I think he certainly has hurt his case by saying the things he did that were anti-American, anti-Israeli. He has shown himself to be the person I believe that he is. And I think that the evidence will probably show him to be. So I don't think it was something that the judge consciously decided to let him do. On the other hand, he was not well served by doing what he did. He would have been better served, obviously, by letting people who are appointed to represent him speak for him in that context.

ZAHN: All right. Let's go through what you think is his strategy. OK. He fires his lawyers and then he gives the judge a hard time, basically saying I don't want a jury to decide my fate. And I want you to decide my fate and then continues to insult her. What is he going to get?

HOLDER: Well, he might have actually stumbled into something there. I think he's actually better served by having a judge decide the question of guilty or innocence in this case. A jury, even after the selection process that we go through and you try to filter out people who say they are too emotionally affected by what happened on September 11th to be fair and impartial, you're still going to have Americans who are going to have in their minds and I still have in my mind the pictures of the destruction of the World Trade Centers, the carnage that happened at the Pentagon. It seems to be very difficult to get 12 Americans who are going to be able to be totally fair and objective. A lot easier, on the other hand, to get a judge who is trained as a lawyer, I know this judge, to put aside those kinds of things and decide the guilt or innocence of Mr. Moussaoui only on the evidence, the testimony and the law that comes through in this courtroom.

So in some ways, I think he might have stumbled into something that potentially benefits him. I don't think, on the other hand, when it comes to penalty phase that it makes a lot of sense for him to have a judge as opposed to a jury decide his fate, when it comes to the penalty side. That is whether or not he receives the death penalty. I think he'd be better served by having a jury of 12 people, where he only needs to convince one that he should not be executed to be successful in that that regard.

So I think he stumbled into something with regard to the guilty or innocence phase but probably didn't - will not do himself well if he has only a judge to decide whether or not he should receive the death penalty.

ZAHN: So from a prosecutor's point of view earlier on in this case, tell us what they're up against. I mean here you got the guy that was in INS custody on September 11th. So far the government hasn't publicly acknowledged whether there is a firm link linking him to Osama Bin Laden in anyway and, you know, already Moussaoui indicated earlier this week that some of the witnesses who have cooperated with the government, in his words, are a sham.

HOLDER: Well, you know people have said this is circumstantial case and that's true. But as any lawyer will tell you, circumstantial evidence is just as good as any direct evidence that might come through in a trial. I think what the prosecutors are going to have to show here - and that's what's really important about this case. This is more than the trial of the United States versus Zacarias Moussaoui. This is case of the United States versus Mohamed Atta and all the others people who were involved on September the 11th. This is an opportunity for the United States to lay out the facts, the evidence against those other 19 and then try to connect Moussaoui to those 19 and then ultimately connect Moussaoui and those 19 to Al-Qaeda and ultimately to Osama Bin Laden.

I think the case, from what I understand, is actually a pretty good one. We'll be able to show the 19 did what they did, fairly obviously. And I think the connections between them and Moussaoui are actually going to be pretty good in the sense that he comes to this country and takes flight lessons. He certainly didn't want to be a commercial pilot; we can show from what I understand, that he received money from the same people as those other 19 did. These are the kinds of things, the kinds of ties that I think the government will be able to show, that ultimately I think are going to convict this guy.

ZAHN: Do you think he deserves the death penalty if convicted?

HOLDER: Yeah. I think so. One has - people have said, you know, he was in jail at the time of that these incidents happened. He was in jail for 30 days or so. Well let's turn that around a little bit. He was a person who then had the unique ability to call the whole thing off. He was aware of the fact of what was going to happen on September the 11th. He had 30 days in which to tell a jailer, authorities, somebody what was going to happen and decided not to do that. Let happen what happened on September the 11th and he is, in some ways, just as responsible as those people who actually flew those planes into the World Trade Center and is deserving of the death penalty.

Now I say that as a person who does not support the death penalty. I think we use far too often. I think that it's unfairly administered but if ever there was somebody who was going to deserve the death penalty, I think it's people who carried out the attacks on September the 11th and I consider Mr. Moussaoui part of that crowd.

ZAHN: All right, Eric Holder good to see you, Former Deputy Attorney General in the Clinton Administration. Thanks for your time this morning.

HOLDER: It's good to see you.

ZAHN: And we'll be counting on you to keep us posted on the progress of this trial.