No death penalty in Sept. 11 plot case

After 7 days, jury agrees on life in prison for Moussaoui

May 04, 2006|By RICHARD SERRANO | RICHARD SERRANO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- A federal jury decided yesterday to spare the life of Zacarias Moussaoui, ensuring that the first person to be held accountable for the Sept. 11 terror attacks will spend a lifetime in prison. The jury reached its decision after seven days of deliberations, and its verdict paperwork showed that the nine men and three women were widely split over how to punish the man who claimed he was to have flown a fifth plane into the White House but whose trial suggested he really knew little about that plot.

The 37-year-old French Moroccan sat ramrod-straight along a side wall in the courtroom and appeared to be silently praying as the jurors, looking exhausted, filed into the courtroom late in the afternoon.

When U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema read the verdict and announced that the decision was life in prison without the possibility of parole, Moussaoui betrayed no surprise. But when the courtroom was being cleared, he gleefully boasted that he had beaten the American judicial system, especially David J. Novak, the assistant federal prosecutor brought in as the government's death penalty expert.

Moussaoui clapped his hands and shouted in laughter: "America, you lost! David Novak, you lost! I won!"

When the trial began two months ago, many viewed it as a done deal for the government, especially because Moussaoui had already pleaded guilty to being a Sept. 11 conspirator. And when Moussaoui twice testified, he all but dared the jury to put him to death.

He bragged about his loyalty to al-Qaida, his hatred for America and his supposed role as a fifth pilot on Sept. 11.

But as the trial progressed, the government's case weakened. Moussaoui was arrested during flight school in Minnesota and testimony and evidence showed FBI officials in Washington never took him seriously.

But most of all, he simply was not there: On the morning of Sept. 11, Moussaoui was confined to a jail cell in Minneapolis.

It was that wide disparity between the government's argument that Moussaoui was a hijack pilot-in-training and the defense team's position that he was nothing more than an al-Qaida stooge that clearly divided the jurors.

To reach a death sentence, all 12 jurors had to agree he should die.

Jurors first were required to side with the government on at least one of three statutory aggravating factors. The jury agreed with two of the three.

They found that Moussaoui "knowingly created a grave risk of death" as a Sept. 11 collaborator and that he was involved in "substantial planning and premeditation" in his activities in 2001, taking flight lessons in this country, buying short-bladed knives and accepting large amounts of money from al-Qaida leaders abroad.

On the third aggravating factor, the jurors found that Moussaoui did not commit the offenses of Sept. 11 in a "heinous, cruel, or depraved manner in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse" to the victims.

On that point, the jury seemed to be acknowledging that Moussaoui was not directly responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

Nevertheless, having agreed with two of the three aggravating factors, the jury did make Moussaoui eligible for the death penalty. But it was the jurors' response to other questions that led to the sentence of life.

The jury had to weigh seven aggravating factors posed by the government, and the jurors sided with prosecutors on all but one. They found that Moussaoui came to the United States to learn to fly "in order to kill as many American citizens as possible." They said Moussaoui "has demonstrated a lack of remorse for his criminal conduct."

But in another aggravating factor, the jury said Moussaoui's actions did not directly cause the deaths and mayhem of Sept. 11.

By that, the jury seemed to be dismissing the key element of the government's case: that because Moussaoui lied when he was arrested in mid-August 2001, the FBI and federal aviation officials did not have a chance to learn about the looming Sept. 11 attacks and perhaps stop them.

The jurors then turned their attention to two dozen possible mitigating factors. These were designed by his defense team as reasons why his life should be spared. The jury decided that the mitigating factors outweighed the arguments by the government, and they voted to save him from execution.

A large number of jurors -- nine of the 12 -- said they believed that Moussaoui's early childhood was "unstable," that he was placed in orphanages and later had a "home life without structure and emotional and financial support."

But none of the jurors believed he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, a major part of the defense's case. And none believed that he wanted to be executed because it would "create a martyr for radical Muslim fundamentalists and to al-Qaida in particular."

Finally, three jurors determined that his role in the Sept. 11 operation, "if any," was minor. Indeed, on a separate page three jurors wrote in their opinion that Moussaoui "had limited knowledge of the 9/11 attacks."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.