In a major breakthrough for US federal prosecutors in Chicago, accused Mumbai attack planner David Coleman Headley will plead guilty during a Thursday afternoon court hearing, a lawyer said on Wednesday. It is not clear if he will accept the charge of planning the 26/11 attacks.
Headley’s attorney, John Theis, said he and his client “have been in discussions with the government” and Thursday’s action would reflect the results. He declined to elaborate further on his client’s plan to change the plea of innocence he entered on January 27. Theis confirmed the change-of-plea hearing for Thursday afternoon and told DNA he would probably comment publicly about the matter after court.
Headley is scheduled to appear on Thursday before a US district judge for a change of plea hearing, the court said in a one-paragraph filing but officials haven’t indicated which of the charges the new plea will relate to.
Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the US attorney’s office, also declined to comment.
Headley originally pleaded not guilty to 12 charges that include plotting the November 2008 Mumbai attacks that left 166 people, including several Americans, dead.
The development means that the plot to seek his extradition is slipping from the hands of Indian investigating agencies. As it is, the chances of the US handing him over to India were slim.
Headley’s proffer agreement would result in his escaping the death sentence and getting away with lighter punishment, which would have a strong bearing on India’s efforts to seek his extradition. A proffer agreement permits a co-accused in a case to strike a deal with federal prosecutors that he or she would get a lenient sentence in lieu of passing on information about the main accused. The main accused in the Headley case is Ilyas Kashmiri and other Pakistan-based handlers of Kasab and him.
Home ministry officials, putting up a brave face, maintain that they are not surprised by Headley’s move. They said India would keep up efforts to seek his extradition and that a lighter sentence would confirm that he is an FBI agent.
The chances of his extradition are also bleak as he faces six counts of abetting the murder of US citizens. A government source said that in view of the gravity of the charges against him, the US would retain custody.
The question of extraditing Headley would arise only after Indian investigating agencies file a charge-sheet against him. But this option is unlikely to be pursued as there is a feeling this would weaken and delay the case against Kasab.
“Even filing a supplementary case against Headley at this stage will lead to difficulties in the ongoing case against Kasab as it would give the matter a new turn,” the source said. “The case may be further delayed once Kasab’s lawyer seeks to question Headley since his extradition seems to be a remote possibility.”
Home minister P Chidambaram has said that the government is pursuing the case to get access to Headley. He has said the issue involves a lot of legal hurdles.