A not guilty plea was lodged on behalf of the suspected Christmas Day bomber yesterday at the end of a three-minute hearing in federal court in downtown Detroit.
Dressed in a white T-shirt, prison trousers and tennis shoes, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab whispered "yes" when asked several times whether he understood the proceedings in the court. However, a defence lawyer said he would "stand mute" when asked how he was pleading. The "not guilty" plea was entered on his behalf by the judge.
Abdulmutallab is being represented by Miriam Siefer, the head of the public defenders office in Detroit, and the not guilty plea had been widely expected. Her options going forward seemed limited, however, given the circumstances of the alleged terror attack. The suspect was tackled by crew and passengers after flames shot from his clothes as the plane began its approach to Detroit airport.
However, Ms Siefer has retained the option of later seeking a plea bargain with prosecutors in exchange for her client providing information on how his mission was planned. US officials have already indicated that before he was instructed by his lawyer to remain silent, he volunteered "actionable intelligence" on his ties to an affiliate of al-Qa'ida in Yemen. Some legal observers played down that option last night.
"A person who wants to blow himself up in an airplane over Detroit is not looking to shave some time off in the big house," said Lloyd Meyer, a former terrorism prosecutor at the Guantanamo Bay prison. "I have no doubt he will welcome the world stage of a federal courtroom. They want a public forum. They want the spotlight to show why they are holy warriors against the great Satan."
A grand jury delivered six charges against Abdulmutallab this week, the most serious of which was trying to bring down an airliner with a weapon of mass destruction which is punishable by a life sentence in prison. The charges were confirmed by the US Attorney General, Eric Holder.
Any plea deal would possibly lead to a reduction in his eventual sentence, experts said. But the US Attorney in Detroit, Barbara McQuade, said no such deal had been done. "We'll take the case one step at a time," she said. "If he wants to plead guilty he has the right to do that ... We need to prepare as if this case is going to trial."