With the first US conviction from a Sept. 11 case in hand, federal prosecutors face a new battle over whether Zacarias Moussaoui should receive the death penalty.
Although he pleaded guilty as expected Friday, Moussaoui told US District Judge Leonie Brinkema, "I will fight every inch against the death penalty." Just last week, he had told her he would plead for execution.
That was among several surprises as the defendant voluntarily admitted his guilt on six counts of conspiring with al-Qaeda leaders and the Sept. 11 hijackers to wreak havoc on Americans. Four counts carry a possible death penalty.
Moussaoui also declared for the first time in public that Osama bin Laden personally instructed him to fly an airliner into the White House. The target date was not clear.
Over the objection of his lawyers, Moussaoui admitted guilt as he appeared in a courtroom a few miles from where one of four hijacked planes crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. The others crashed into New York's World Trade Center towers and a Pennsylvania field, taking nearly 3,000 lives.
After Brinkema accepted Moussaoui's pleas, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told a news conference that prosecutors will seek death for him.
But the nearly hourlong court proceeding made clear that would produce a legal battle.
Moussaoui attributed his reversal to a conversation with Brinkema this week that he said gave him a clearer understanding of his rights.
Brinkema carefully pointed out to Moussaoui in court that his guilty pleas did not waive his right to continue fighting to obtain potentially mitigating evidence from three top al-Qaeda leaders in US custody. Moussaoui said he was prepared to go back to the Supreme Court for access to those prisoners, although the high court earlier declined to overturn a plan to give him just unclassified summaries of what the trio has said.
This new struggle by the 36-year-old French citizen of Moroccan descent could ignite protests in Europe, where the death penalty has less support and most countries forbid it.
Unshackled and wearing a green prison jumpsuit, Moussaoui told the judge he had not been promised a lighter sentence. "I don't expect any leniency from the Americans," he said.
Moussaoui admitted to conspiring with 19 hijackers and al-Qaeda leaders in a broad plot to kill Americans using commercial airliners as weapons. The overall conspiracy included the Sept. 11 attacks.
In a "statement of facts" compiled by prosecutors and signed in court by Moussaoui, he acknowledged knowing about the plot to fly planes into prominent US buildings, then lying to federal agents after his arrest in August 2001 to avoid exposing the plot.
But Moussaoui hinted at a possible death penalty defense as he tried to distance himself from the specific events of Sept. 11. He told the court that nothing in the statement he signed declared he was "specifically guilty of 9/11."
Moussaoui was arrested in August 2001 for overstaying his visa after drawing suspicion at a Minnesota flight school because he wanted to learn to fly a Boeing 747 even though he had no pilot's license. He was behind bars on September 11.