Moussaoui jurors decide life or death

Prosecutors, defense team to present differing portraits of terrorist, insanity

April 05, 2006|By RICHARD A. SERRANO | RICHARD A. SERRANO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- When the Zacarias Moussaoui trial resumes tomorrow, gone will be the images of a shadowy world of Muslim extremists, of an FBI and CIA unable to track their movements, of a conspiracy in which Moussaoui's role on Sept. 11 is still unclear.

Now that a jury has found Moussaoui eligible for the death penalty, the trial comes down to a single question: Does he live or die?

Federal prosecutors, wanting Moussaoui dead, intend next to turn Courtroom 700 over to the horror of that day 4 1/2 years ago. They hope to show pictures of all 2,972 who perished, videos of the World Trade Center towers afire and bodies falling, and audiotapes of desperate phone calls to loved ones and emergency crews.

The government has designated up to 45 victims and family members to testify about their loss. And they hope to contrast their anguish with Moussaoui's boasts that America remains his enemy.

Separately, defense lawyers believe the jury might spare their client's life if they can show he is insane. They have mental health professionals standing by, at least one ready to testify that Moussaoui appears to be schizophrenic.

The defense team will also say that their client, 37, emerged from a tragic childhood only to fall under the spell of terrorist leaders preaching jihad against the West.

The jury also probably will hear once more from Moussaoui. He is insistent on taking the witness stand again, despite his testimony last week that all but convicted him.

Moussaoui's behavior is difficult to predict, and his final performance before the jury - as an unrepentant terrorist or simply deranged - could be the tipping point on whether he is sentenced to death by injection or life in prison without parole.

Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor in New York who has tried terrorists, expects the government to prevail. But he warned that flashing thousands of photos and videos of bodies falling from the sky could inure the jury against the human suffering they are watching.

"After awhile it's like watching a Road Runner cartoon, where the coyote keeps falling off the cliff and you don't wince anymore," McCarthy said. "If you overdo it, you'll lose all sensitivity."

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, believes the insanity claim has merit, especially because the Supreme Court has exempted the mentally ill from capital punishment.

He said that with overwhelming evidence that Moussaoui is an avowed terrorist, and his self-incriminating testimony, insanity is probably the only option left for defense lawyers hamstrung by a client they cannot control.

"Who better than his counsel would be able to present a judgment about his mental fitness?" Tobias asked.

Evan Kohlmann, an international expert on terrorism who has worked as a trial consultant for the government in Virginia, agreed that prosecutors might find it difficult to knock down the insanity defense.

"The guy has been to some pretty crazy places and is definitely shell-shocked," Kohlmann said, referring to Moussaoui's exploits in Chechnya and at al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan. "He also has been brainwashed in the ideology he holds. He's to the point of no return. But I don't know if that amounts to insanity."

The government could counter the insanity argument by using Moussaoui's words. When he testified last week, he was well-spoken, polite at times, even as his statements chilled the courtroom. He came across as more evil than incoherent.

He said he was "delighted" at the sight of the trade center collapsing. The smoking ruins, he said, were "gorgeous." He praised the 19 hijackers he was unable to join because he was arrested weeks before. "They are now in the highest level of paradise," he said.

Moussaoui had this to say about the judge, the prosecutors, his defense team and the jury: "I consider every American to be my enemy. So for me, any American is meant to want my death because I want their death."

His defense team, to whom he longer talks, plans to present mental health experts and sociologists to try to convince the jury that such bombastic talk has deep roots in Moussaoui's troubled psyche. They are prepared to say that Moussaoui, born in France to Moroccan parents, largely was raised an orphan, the son of a violent and alcoholic father and a mother who left him with others for child care. Moussaoui and his siblings struggled to eat and to stay in school in France.

He eventually drifted to England and into a Muslim mosque that preached hate against Americans.

According to a defense legal brief filed in the case, psychiatrist Nancy C. Andreasen, "will testify that Mr. Moussaoui suffers from a major thought disorder, most likely schizophrenia."

To reach that diagnosis, "she will rely on her analysis of Mr. Moussaoui's writing and his appearances in court."

Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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