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Jury finds Moussaoui eligible for death penalty
McClatchy Newspapers


April 04, 2006

WASHINGTON - A federal jury Monday found al Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui eligible for the death penalty, agreeing that his lies to federal agents in Minnesota in August 2001 prevented investigators from limiting the nation's worst terror attack.

Moussaoui decision provokes strong feelings from
families of victims

McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON - Beverly Burnett, who lost her son Tom on Flight 93, was haunted by what could have been.

What if Zacarias Moussaoui had talked to the FBI and revealed the 9/11 plot? Would her son be alive today?

For several victims' families, that question was answered Monday, at least in part, by a federal jury in Alexandria, Va.

"You always wonder if Tom would have lived if an FBI agent could have opened (Moussaoui's) laptop," the Northfield, Minn., mother said. "There are a lot of ifs. . . . It's something we will never get over. Our son is dead."

The verdict did not change that, she said. Nor did it change the ambivalence she's come to feel about the fate of Moussaoui, the convicted 9/11 plotter who seemed to mock the American system of justice.

"Whatever the verdict would be, we put it in the hands of the attorneys and the jurors," said Burnett, who watched at her home as the verdict was read live on television. Her husband Tom Sr., recovering from a recent stroke, was resting in bed.

She didn't wake him up.

"Whatever they decided, we were going to accept the verdict," she said.

To be sure, the verdict brought out raw emotion in some of the victims' families.

Rosemary Dillard of Alexandria, Va., whose husband Eddie was on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon, walked up to reporters outside the courthouse, pumped her right arm once and let out a celebratory, "Yes!"

She said it wasn't about what Moussaoui did just to her family, but to the whole country.

"He did that to all of you," she said. "None of you feel the same way you did before 9/11/2001. . . . This man has no soul, he has no conscience."

Hamilton Peterson, the leader of a Flight 93 victims' group, also expressed satisfaction.

"I feel confident that in light of Moussaoui's own testimony, this is the right decision," said Peterson, who lost his father and stepmother in the crash. "I look forward to the next phase of the trial and the final determination of his execution."

But Abraham Scott, of Springfield, Va., whose wife Janice died in the Pentagon, said he expected to be elated but wasn't. He also expressed sorrow for Moussaoui, describing him and other terrorists as "like a dog with rabies - one that cannot be cured, and the only cure is to put him or her to their death."

Scott said he blames the government as much as Moussaoui, because it missed indicators that could have been used to prevent the attacks. But he said Moussaoui deserves to die and that he expects it to bring comfort to those affected by Sept. 11.

"The other 19 terrorists are not here to give us justice," he said. "But I do believe, with him being put to the death penalty, it will bring justice to this particular incident."

(Distributed by Scripps
Howard News Service.)

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.


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