DETROIT (Reuters) - A Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up a U.S. airliner with a bomb in his underwear last year fired his court-appointed lawyers Monday and raised the possibility of pleading guilty to some charges.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who pleaded not guilty in January to trying to blow up a transatlantic flight on Christmas Day, said his lawyers were not serving his best interests and asked a judge to let him represent himself.
“If I want to plead guilty to some counts, how would that work?” Abdulmutallab asked U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Edmunds during a 15-minute court appearance.
Edmunds strongly urged him not to fire his lawyers but agreed to allow Abdulmutallab’s request and will appoint new lawyers to act as consultants to him. She told him they would be able to answer questions about his plea.
Abdulmutallab, originally from Nigeria, boarded a Northwest Airlines jumbo jet flight from Amsterdam to Detroit and near the end of the trip he tried to ignite a bomb sewn into his underwear, prosecutors said.
They said it failed to fully detonate and he was subdued by the passengers and crew and the fire was contained.
He was subsequently charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, attempted murder and four other offenses, charges that could lead to life in prison if convicted.
He had been cooperating with U.S. investigators for several months and told them that he received the device and training from al Qaeda militants in Yemen. Abdulmutallab suffered severe burns from the explosives.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on whether Abdulmutallab was still cooperating with authorities.
The failed attack led to further efforts by the Obama administration to strengthen U.S. airline security.
In a court filing ahead of his appearance, Abdulmutallab’s attorneys said they had met in person and by phone “on multiple occasions with government counsel to discuss options for resolution of the case.”
Abdulmutallab wore a short-sleeved tan shirt over a white T-shirt and tan pants to the court appearance. He responded to Edmunds’ questions in a soft and measured tone.
“I prefer to represent myself,” he told the judge, adding that, “I feel any representation I have, there will always be a conflict of interest.”
He told Edmunds he had not studied law and had never represented himself in a criminal case. He also said he was not familiar with the federal rules of evidence and was somewhat familiar with criminal procedure.
If Abdulmutallab does plead guilty, he would follow a similar path taken by a Pakistani-born American, Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a car bomb in the heart of New York City on May 1. It too failed to detonate.
In June, Shahzad pleaded guilty to 10 charges related to the incident and faces mandatory life in prison.
Edmunds said a person would contact Abdulmutallab within a week about standby counsel and set another status conference for October 14.
The case is USA v Abdulmutallab, 2:10-cr-20005, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington; Editing by Cynthia Osterman