Friday, January 15, 2010

Court Affirms Convictions, Life Sentences of "20th Hijacker"

US v. Moussaoui: Moussaoui was the "20th hijacker," arrested for overstaying his visa while training at a Minnesota flight school in August 2001. After 9/11, dots were connected and Moussaoui was eventually charged with six conspiracy counts (from use of weapons of mass destruction to destruction of Federal property) related to those attacks. After lots of wrangling about attorneys, access to classified information, and the like, Moussaoui (who at one point proceeded pro se) announced that he would plead guilty straight up to the indictment. After he did so, a jury rejected the arguments of the Government in search of the death penalty and condemned Moussaoui to a series of life sentences. The district court imposed six life sentences on Moussaoui, all but one of which are to run concurrently. After sentencing, Moussaoui moved to withdraw his guilty plea, explaining that the leniency showed to him by the sentencing jury convinced him that he could receive a fair trial in an American court. That motion was denied.

On appeal Moussaoui challenged both his guilty plea and his sentences, as well as seeking a remand based on classified information the Government disclosed during the appeal. The Fourth Circuit rejected all his requests, affirming his convictions and sentences.

As to the guilty plea, the court first rejected Moussaoui's argument that his plea was involuntary due to several of the district court's pretrial rulings. Those claims were extinguished by the guilty plea, which was not conditional, and were therefore waived. The court also rejected claims that Moussaoui's guilty plea was not made knowingly and intelligently, because (a) he did not have access to certain exculpatory, classified information when he entered his guilty plea, and (b) counsel was prohibited from discussing that information with him. Next, the court rejected Moussaoui's argument that the district court should have ordered a competency evaluation (beyond the one done before Moussaoui went pro se) prior to the entry of his guilty plea. Finally, the court rejected Moussaoui's arguments about errors in the guilty plea hearing (under a plain error standard of review), including the failure to adequately inform him of the charges against him, to ensure a factual basis exists, and to inform him of the possible sentences he faced.

As to his sentences, the court first rejected Moussaoui's argument that the district court erred by denying his motions for acquittal on the issue of whether he was eligible for the death penalty. Noting that the argument is moot because the jury did not recommend the death penalty, the court explained that because the jury also did not unanimously recommend that Moussaoui receive life sentences the determination that he was death eligible did not require the imposition of life sentences by the district court. The court also concluded that the district court was not under the false impression that life sentences were mandatory after the jury's findings.

Finally, as to Moussaoui's motion to remand for the district court to consider classified evidence that came to light during the pendency of the appeal, the Fourth Circuit denied Moussaoui's request. Having reviewed the evidence in question in camera, the court held that it was not exculpatory and would not caused Moussaoui to forgo a guilty plea and proceed to trial.

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