Moussaoui loses round

9/11 conspirator is eligible for execution, jury finds

April 04, 2006|By RICHARD A. SERRANO | RICHARD A. SERRANO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- A federal jury concluded yesterday that Zacarias Moussaoui is eligible for the death penalty, sending his trial into a final stage that will decide whether he deserves to forfeit his life for the deaths in the Sept. 11 attacks or is mentally too unstable to warrant execution.

The unanimous decision marked a major victory for the government, which has struggled to win trial verdicts in terrorism prosecutions since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Prosecutors were aided by Moussaoui himself, whose insistence on taking the stand helped offset government blunders.

The jurors deliberated about 16 hours over four days before sending word that they had reached a decision. Lawyers, families of Sept. 11 victims, federal marshals and others began packing the courtroom well in advance of the 4 p.m. reading of the verdict.

Before the jury was brought in, Moussaoui could be heard yelling from behind a courtroom wall, where he was kept in a holding cell. The jurors then entered the courtroom, and the forewoman, a schoolteacher from Northern Virginia, said they had reached a verdict.

U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema asked Moussaoui to rise. He refused, instead remaining defiantly in his seat, his head tilted back against the wall, speaking softly to himself as if in prayer.

After the verdict was read, Moussaoui, 37, screamed at prosecutors: "You'll never get my blood! God curse your souls!"

Trial's next round

The second and final phase of the trial, expected to last two to three weeks, is scheduled to begin Thursday. Prosecutors will urge the same jury of nine men and three women to sentence the French citizen of Moroccan descent to death. They will focus on his avowed loyalty to al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

Prosecutors also will summon up to 45 people who were injured in the attacks or lost family members, and have them tell their stories of suffering over the past 4 1/2 years.

Moussaoui's lawyers plan to present mitigating evidence and testimony about his troubled childhood in Europe, as well as indications that he suffers from schizophrenia. That is crucial because the Supreme Court has ruled that the mentally ill cannot be executed.

If jurors come back with a death sentence, it will mark the end of the only Sept. 11-related prosecution in the United States and the only time anyone has been handed the ultimate punishment in a terrorism case since the country was attacked in 2001.

The two-stage process - of first determining whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty and then deciding whether he should die - is standard procedure in the federal system but is usually part of a single deliberation. Brinkema decided to split the process into separate proceedings.

`Aggravating factors'

The verdict found that Moussaoui was eligible under federal law because he acted intentionally. Now, the jury will consider a list of "aggravating factors" under the law to determine whether he should be put to death. Among the factors is whether the crime was committed in an especially "heinous, cruel or depraved manner."

Defense lawyers said Moussaoui's mental state and his decision to testify in his own defense would be issues his lawyers would raise on appeal. But they said those prospects appeared slim in the near term, especially in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Brinkema's court.

Statistics show that, of all the federal appeals courts, "they are the least likely to overturn a death sentence," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Moussaoui was taking flight lessons in Minnesota when he was arrested less than a month before the attacks. The government contended that if he had told FBI agents what he knew about the plot, they could have headed off the attacks. Jurors agreed, drawing the key conclusion that Moussaoui was directly responsible for at least one of the nearly 3,000 deaths on Sept. 11.

Prosecutors stumbled

Prosecutors stumbled badly when a government lawyer improperly coached aviation witnesses ahead of their testimony, and the judge barred much of the government's case.

The defense introduced evidence that the FBI ignored numerous other warnings of an impending attack and would have probably ignored Moussaoui as well. Defense lawyers also obtained interrogation statements from high-level al-Qaida operatives who said Moussaoui was incompetent and was not slated to play any role on Sept. 11.

But Moussaoui's testimony, over his lawyers' objections, changed the tenor of the trial. He claimed that he was scheduled to hijack a fifth jetliner and fly it into the White House, talked matter-of-factly of how he had looked forward to killing Americans and said that after his arrest he lied to the FBI so that the plot could go forward.

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