Jury deliberating fate of Moussaoui

Prosecutors say terrorist deserves death penalty in 9/11 attacks

defense argues life term would be worse than capital punishment

April 25, 2006|By RICHARD A. SERRANO | RICHARD A. SERRANO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- The fate of Zacarias Moussaoui was turned over to a federal jury yesterday, and the nine men and three women began debating whether he is to be executed for his role in the Sept. 11 conspiracy or should spend the rest of his life in prison.

In closing arguments, prosecutors said the French Moroccan member of al-Qaida, arrested while in flight training in Minnesota weeks before the attacks on New York and Washington, should pay with his life for the 2,972 innocents killed that day.

"This is the United States of America," said Assistant U.S. Attorney David Novak. "We are not going to put up with a bunch of thugs who invoke God's name and kill thousands of innocent people."

But defense attorney Gerald Zerkin urged the jury to sentence Moussaoui to life without parole, arguing that a life sentence for the admitted terrorist would be a fate worse than death.

"His death will not make them better," Zerkin said. "It won't even start them on the road to recovery."

Jurors deliberated about three hours yesterday afternoon and are to return to the courthouse this morning to continue discussions. At several breaks in the trial yesterday, when the judge stepped down and the jury left the courtroom, Moussaoui hurled epithets and boasted that the U.S. justice system cannot touch him.

"Never get me, America!" he shouted after prosecutors asked for a death sentence. "Never, never!"

And Moussaoui warned that a new generation of al-Qaida terrorists will follow him, whether he is dispatched to federal death row in Indiana or a solitary prison cell in Colorado.

Moussaoui, 37, pleaded guilty last year to being a Sept. 11 conspirator. His sentencing trial began March 6, and the jury found him eligible for the death penalty. Now they are weighing whether he deserves to die or face life in prison.

Their decision is complex. They were given a 42-page "special verdict form," and they must first make findings on three aggravating factors against Moussaoui.

The factors, spelled out in federal law, state that Moussaoui, conspiring with other al-Qaida members, "knowingly created a grave risk of death," that the deaths were "especially heinous, cruel or depraved," and that Moussaoui was involved in "substantial planning and premeditation" for the attacks.

The jury must decide that prosecutors have proven at least one of the three statutory aggravating factors in order to proceed toward a death sentence. If at least one isn't proven, they must give Moussaoui a life sentence. But if the jurors decide that at least one of the statutory factors was proven, they can begin weighing other, nonstatutory factors laid out by the prosecution and defense.

There are seven nonstatutory aggravating factors. They generally deal with the large loss of life and destruction around the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and also point out that Moussaoui was "gaining specialized knowledge in flying an aircraft in order to kill as many American citizens as possible."

Moussaoui was taking pilot lessons in Minnesota when he was arrested three weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks.

The defense has argued that Moussaoui was a fringe figure in the Sept. 11 plot, but the jury was told that he was a key player. He asked jurors not to be bothered that men known to have masterminded the plot have not been charged with a crime, even though they are in U.S. custody. He said the government is still interrogating them, and implied that they might eventually face trial.

When Zerkin rose to defend Moussaoui, he outlined 24 mitigating factors the jury could use to reach a decision of life in prison. They include Moussaoui's impoverished and abusive childhood, the racism he felt in Western Europe, and testimony that he was brainwashed into joining al-Qaida while studying in England.

The mitigating factors note that Moussaoui was in jail on Sept. 11 and, most importantly to the defense, that he "suffers from a psychotic disorder, most likely schizophrenia, paranoid subtype."

Zerkin accused the government of offering Moussaoui up as the "sacrificial lamb" when the top terrorist leaders have not been prosecuted. He said execution is exactly what his client desires.

"He wants you to send him to death," Zerkin said. "He is baiting you to do it. He came to America to die in jihad, and you are his last chance." He clearly sees that as his last way to martyrdom. Death is what he wants and what he can only get if you accommodate him."

Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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