U.S. to seek death penalty for man in Sept. 11 attacks

France withdraws cooperation against alleged 20th hijacker

March 29, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department intends to seek a death sentence for Zacarias Moussaoui if he is found guilty of conspiring to commit the Sept. 11 attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft said yesterday.

In a filing in federal court in Alexandria, Va., prosecutors said the death penalty was warranted because Moussaoui - the only person charged so far in the terrorist attacks - committed his crimes "in an especially heinous, cruel and depraved manner."

Moussaoui, 33, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, was indicted in December on six counts of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts, destroy an aircraft, use weapons of mass destruction and murder. He is scheduled to go to trial in the fall.

Federal prosecutors will face the task of persuading a jury to convict and then impose the death sentence on a man who is not charged with carrying out the actual attacks and in fact was in jail Sept. 11 on immigration charges.

Nevertheless, the government argues that Moussaoui conspired with Osama bin Laden and with the 19 suicide hijackers to carry out the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Moussaoui, who came to the United States in February last year, aroused suspicion in August at a flight training school in Minnesota, in part because he paid for his lessons in cash. The flight school alerted federal authorities, who questioned Moussaoui and arrested him on immigration violations.

Yesterday, officials in France, where the death penalty has been outlawed since 1981, said they would no longer provide full cooperation to the United States in its case against Moussaoui.

France "will ensure that any evidence it provides may not be used as the basis for seeking the death penalty, a verdict or sentence to that end," Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said in a statement.

Vedrine noted that under a treaty signed with the United States, France is under no obligation to provide help in a prosecution that could result in a death sentence for a French citizen.

In announcing his decision in Florida, Ashcroft said, "We ask our counterparts in the international community to respect our sovereignty, and we respect theirs.

"But it's clear that America is so concerned about the safety and security of its citizens," he said, "that certain crimes against the people of this country have been designated as death-eligible."

Technical complications

A cutoff of French intelligence could limit the evidence available to U.S. prosecutors, who reportedly had been exploiting a sizable file on Moussaoui and his links to suspected terrorist groups that French authorities had been collecting for years.

Prosecutors could have other problems as well. Federal death sentences, which had not been used since the 1960s until Timothy J. McVeigh was executed last year for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, require that prosecutors show that the defendant played a significant role in the crime.

"The government would need to prove more than simply that he was a member of a large conspiracy that took place, but that he played a substantial part in the event that took place," said Joshua Dressler, a professor at Ohio State University Law School and an authority on death penalty law.

"The fact that he was in jail - and for a significant period of time - certainly weakens the case as far as the death penalty phase is concerned," he said.

Several top law enforcement officials also acknowledged recently that investigators have been unable to connect Moussaoui through phone calls, letters or any other form of communication to any of the 19 hijackers.

"We cannot yet cross Zacarias Moussaoui's path with any of the 19 people," one official said. "If you accept that he was going to be the 20th, at some point in time that had to happen or was about to happen."

Still, this official said, it's possible Moussaoui was not supposed to communicate directly with the hijackers, even though he was intended to be the 20th hijacker.

He could have been awaiting orders from terrorist leaders abroad, the official said, or perhaps was supposed to meet the other hijackers Sept. 11 and only then learn of the full scope of the plot.

Indeed, in a video released in December, bin Laden boasted to a roomful of people that at least some of the hijackers "didn't know anything about the operation."

"But they were trained," bin Laden said on the video, "and we did not reveal the operation to them until they are there and just before they boarded the planes."

The government's case so far, as laid out in the indictment of Moussaoui, is somewhat circumstantial. According to the indictment, investigators have found a money trail linking Moussaoui to the people in Germany and the Middle East who were sending money to Mohamed Atta, the suspected leader among the 19 suicide hijackers.

The indictment alleges that Moussaoui trained in al-Qaida terrorist camps and researched crop-dusting equipment and flight training once he arrived in the United States.

Lack of direct connection

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