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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Moussaoui jury hands government a stinging rebuke

Government failed to convince jurors to put convicted terrrorist to death, a stunning defeat for the Justice Department and President Bush's "war on terrorism."

Unable to reach consensus on a death penalty in the nation’s only Sept. 11-related criminal case, a federal jury sentenced Zacarias Moussaoui Wednesday to life in a high-security prison without the possibility of release.

The verdict, after 41 hours of deliberations over seven days, brought to a stunning conclusion a three-month penalty trial in which the government invested massive resources to try to prove that Moussaoui’s lies to federal agents contributed to the carnage.

It was not immediately clear how many of the jurors held out for a life sentence _- and that may remain a secret. The jurors have been kept anonymous and were whisked to their cars by deputy U.S. marshals after the verdict.

But the complicated, 42-page verdict form showed that, while the jury unanimously agreed that Moussaoui’s crime met legal thresholds for a death penalty, a number of jurors gave weight to mitigating factors.

Three jurors found that Moussaoui had “limited knowledge” of the Sept. 11 plot, three said he was a minor player and as many as nine factored his troubled childhood and abusive father in his favor on the three terrorism-related conspiracy counts.

Four jurors gave weight to psychotic disorders suffered by his two sisters and father -_ an indication that those jurors also questioned Moussaoui’s mental stability. Three jurors said they took into account that he was subjected to racism as a Moroccan growing up in southern France.

None of the jurors mentioned Moussaoui’s desire for martyrdom as a mitigating factor, and it was not clear if the verdict was influenced by any jurors’ desire to prevent him from dying an al Qaeda hero.

As U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema calmly read the verdict in a hushed courtroom, Moussaoui appeared as taken aback as many of the spectators, including several relatives of victims of the nation’s worst terror attack.

On April 3, the same jury had found unanimously that Moussaoui was eligible for the death penalty, just days after he boasted to the jury that he was part of the Sept. 11 plot and wanted to kill as many Americans as possible.

Moussaoui, who also admitted that he lied to federal agents in Minnesota to conceal the suicide hijacking scheme, sat motionless, slumped in his chair. But as the jurors departed, he slowly broke into a broad smile and flashed a “V” for victory sign.

Then, as he exited the courtroom, he clapped his hands and shouted: “America lost!” and that prosecutors David Raskin and David Novak had lost. “I won!” he said.

The jury’s decision culminated an emotional trial that relived the nation’s deadliest crime and shed new light on U.S. counter-terrorism agencies’ failure to prevent it. The suicide hijackings, in which terrorists slammed jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, set off America’s global war on terrorism.

President Bush issued a statement Wednesday noting that Moussaoui pled guilty a year ago to conspiracy “to murder innocent Americans” and “openly rejoiced in their deaths.”

“This afternoon, the jurors . . . concluded that this man should spend the rest of his life in prison …,” he said. “Our thoughts today are with the families who lost loved ones on September 11th, 2001. Our nation continues to grieve for the men, women and children who suffered and died that day.”

The weary-looking jurors, led by a female mathematics teacher, found that Moussaoui’s crimes met the threshold for a death sentence and unanimously found that eight of the government’s 10 proposed aggravating factors fit his crime. But on each of three capital conspiracy counts, they did not unanimously find beyond a reasonable doubt one of three proposed statutory aggravating factors _ that his crime was carried out in a “heinous, cruel or depraved manner” involving torture or physical abuse. They also did not reach unanimity in blaming Moussaoui for all of the 2,972 deaths on Sept. 11.

The verdict was a setback to the Justice Department team that doggedly pursued Moussaoui’s execution even as prosecutors’ theory of the case morphed several times.

Moussaoui originally was suspected to be the intended 20th hijacker, and his perceived role in the plot seemed to be ever changing until his dramatic admission during the trial that he was to fly a fifth plane into the White House on Sept. 11.

Moussaoui ultimately will wind up with the same sentence he would have received if the government had not pursued a death penalty after he pleaded guilty to six conspiracy counts a year ago.

As a result of the verdict, the short, stocky terrorist with a bald head and bushy black beard faces life in a “super max” prison. It likely will be the federal prison in Florence, Colo., where more than 20 other Islamic terrorists are held. He will have little contact with other inmates.

Brinkema will formally impose Moussaoui’s sentence Thursday morning. The 37-year-old defendant will be allowed to speak during the hearing.

Prosecutors contended that if Moussaoui had told the truth about the terror plot when he was arrested while training to fly a 747 jumbo jet at a Minnesota flight school, the government could have at least minimized the Sept. 11 death toll of 2,972 people.

A death sentence, however, would have set a precedent. No jury has imposed capital punishment on a federal defendant who did not commit murder since a 1978 Supreme Court ruling barred the death penalty for rapists.

Defense lawyers argued that Moussaoui, stymied in carrying out his mission, fabricated his role in the Sept. 11 operation in a last bid to be executed as an al Qaeda martyr. They contended that he was really just a “wannabe” who was lured into the terror group by radical recruiters in London and was “brainwashed” into adopting its doctrine of jihad (holy war).

Moussaoui was arrested in the Minneapolis area on the tips of two program managers at an Eagan, Minn., flight school. They said they were suspicious of his behavior as he learned to fly a 747 jumbo jet without a pilot’s license. Minneapolis FBI agents jumped on the tips, but could not get approval from bureau headquarters to seek a warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings _ preventing one of the best chances of uncovering the plot. On Sept. 11, after the planes hit, they got a warrant and soon found clues to the hijacking scheme.

Aaron Blake contributed to this article.