By GREG GORDON
April 04, 2006
Now the jurors must weigh more emotional evidence during a lengthy second phase that begins on Thursday, when they will be asked to decide whether the 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent actually should be put to death.
Before Moussaoui entered the courtroom Monday, he could be heard shouting several times at U.S. marshals behind a closed door. Moments later, as the elected forewoman, a high school mathematics teacher, handed the verdict to a bailiff and U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema read it aloud, Moussaoui seemed to be reciting a prayer or chant to himself.
After the 10-minute hearing adjourned, the bearded would-be terrorist shouted "You'll never get my blood! God curse you all!" as he left the courtroom.
Yet experts said Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty to six conspiracy counts a year ago, may have sunk himself. He gave prosecutors another big helping hand in the first phase of the sentencing trial. He insisted on testifying over his lawyers' objections and then further incriminated himself by admitting that he was part of the Sept. 11 operation, that he planned to fly a fifth plane into the White House and that he lied upon his arrest so the suicide hijackings could go forward.
The jury deliberated about 17 hours over four days before finding that he can be executed on all three of the counts carrying a possible death penalty: conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries, to destroy aircraft and to use weapons of mass destruction.
The unanimous verdict appears to mark the first time that a federal defendant has been found eligible for execution based solely on his failure to act to prevent a crime. It is a victory for the Justice Department in the only U.S. criminal prosecution stemming from the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings in which terrorists slammed four U.S. jetliners into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked airplane crashed in a Pennsylvania field.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said in a statement: "We are pleased with the jury's ruling in this important case. Our efforts on behalf of the victims of 9/11 will continue as we pursue the next phase of this trial."
Norman Abrams, a University of California, Los Angeles law professor who wrote a book on terrorism prosecutions, said Moussaoui "really did himself in with his testimony."
Even so, he said, the case is "an odd context to impose the death penalty . . . for someone who himself as . . . kind of a wannabe, rather than a (direct) participant."
Robert Precht, who represented the lead defendant in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, said he was surprised by the verdict, because he had considered the causal link between Moussaoui's lies and the attacks to be "too speculative to support the death penalty."
But, he said, "the prosecution has very effectively planted in the jury's minds that there is a connection between Moussaoui's lies and the eventual success of the plot." While Moussaoui needs only one juror to conclude in the second phase that there were mitigating factors in his crime, the unanimous verdict signals that he faces "an uphill battle," Precht said.
Defense lawyers persuaded U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema to bifurcate the sentencing trial so that the most inflammatory testimony would be delayed until jurors considered whether Moussaoui's actions met the legal thresholds of the federal death penalty law.
In the next phase, prosecutors plan to present testimony from dozens of relatives of Sept. 11 victims describing the traumatic impact of their losses, while defense lawyers are expected to call experts who can describe the deprivations Moussaoui faced growing up in the racially charged south of France.
Defense lawyers also told the judge Monday that they will review a secret forensic report on Moussaoui's mental health and decide in the next day or two whether to argue that he has suffered from mental illness. The second phase could last several weeks.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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