Jury Finds Moussaoui Eligible for Execution
- Jury Finds Moussaoui Eligible for Execution
By Neil A. Lewis and John O'Neil
The New York Times
Monday 03 April 2006
Alexandria, Va. - A federal jury found today that Zacarias
Moussaoui was responsible for at least some of the deaths that
occurred in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, meaning that he
could be subject to the death penalty.
In concluding unanimously today that the defendant lied to federal
agents after his arrest in August 2001, that he did so contemplating
that human life would be taken, and that at least one victim of the
Sept. 11 attacks died as a direct result of his deception, the jurors
said death should at least be considered as the appropriate punishment.
The jury of nine men and three women now move into the next phase
of the sentencing trial, in which they will decide whether he should
actually be executed by lethal injection at the federal prison in
Terre Haute, Ind. Before reaching that decision, the jurors will hear
evidence of factors both favorable and unfavorable to the defendant.
Relatives of Sept. 11 victims will be among those testifying.
The jurors reported their verdict to Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of
United States District Court.
The case against Mr. Moussaoui began, in a sense, even before the
Sept. 11 attacks, and its many twists and turns have reflected the
nation's struggle to punish those involved. Mr. Moussaoui, who pleaded
guilty earlier to six conspiracy charges (three of which exposed him
to the death penalty), is the only person to be charged in a United
States courtroom in connection with the plot.
The trial, whose sole purpose was to determine whether he would be
sentenced to death or life in prison, also gave a newly detailed and
vivid picture of the missed opportunities that followed his arrest
three weeks before the attacks.
During its long course, the proceedings were repeatedly thrown
into turmoil by Mr. Moussaoui's outbursts and changes of heart, and
were almost derailed at the end by a blunder on the part of the
The surprises went both ways up until the very end of the
sometimes raucous three-week trial. The penalty hearings that were the
case's final phase were brought to a halt in March when prosecutors
disclosed that a government lawyer had improperly coached several
aviation officials who were to be key witnesses, leading the judge to
consider a mistrial. The lawyer, Carla J. Martin, was told by Judge
Brinkema that she could face criminal charges.
And then Mr. Moussaoui appeared to throw away any advantage his
court-appointed lawyers had won by taking the stand against their
advice and asserting that he had in fact been a member of the 9-11
plotters and had been assigned to fly a plane into the White House.
In the trial, prosecutors asserted, under what they admitted was a
novel argument, that Mr. Moussaoui deserved to be executed because
when he was arrested on Aug. 16 on immigration violations, he lied to
investigators about his knowledge of Qaeda plans to fly planes into
buildings. Had Mr. Moussaoui told the truth, the prosecutors said, the
Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Aviation
Administration would have taken quick action to thwart the plot.
Defense lawyers pressed the idea that any information Mr.
Moussaoui may have provided would have become part of the sea of
unchecked leads in the days before the attacks. They also introduced
evidence, much of it never previously made public, that showed that
captured Al Qaeda leaders who oversaw the 9-11 plot described him as a
troublesome and peripheral figure.
Government officials originally described Mr. Moussaoui as the
"20th hijacker," and said that but for his arrest he would have been
aboard one of the planes that were crashed on Sept. 11. After
investigations pointed to another captured Al Qaeda member as playing
that role, they said that Mr. Moussaoui had been training for a later
But Mr. Moussaoui testified that he had been assigned, along with
Ralph Reid, the man arrested for trying to blow up a bomb in his shoe
on a trans-Atlantic flight after Sept. 11, to fly a fifth plane that day.
Mr. Moussaoui, a 37-year-old French-born Arab of Moroccan descent,
was arrested on Aug. 17, 2001, after instructors at a flight school in
Minnesota became suspicious when he asked to be trained in flying a
Boeing 747 although he did not yet have a pilot's license. Mr.
Moussaoui had taken flying lessons earlier that year in Oklahoma but
had not qualified for a license.
While the failure of F.B.I. higher-ups to act on requests to
investigate Mr. Moussaoui further had been disclosed years ago, never
had the missteps been laid out quite so vividly by some of the agents
One witness, Harry Samit, an F.B.I. agent in Minnesota who
questioned Mr. Moussaoui at his arrest, testified for the prosecution
that Mr. Moussaoui's evasions had sent investigators on "wild goose
chases" and that a truthful statement by him would have generated
But on cross-examination, Mr. Samit acknowledged that after the
attacks he had written strongly worded reports saying his superiors
had improperly blocked his efforts to investigate Mr. Moussaoui. He
added that he had been convinced that Mr. Moussaoui was a terrorist
involved in an imminent hijacking plot.
He offered a devastating comment from a supervisor who said
pressing too hard to obtain a warrant for Mr. Moussaoui would hurt his
career. Mr. Samit also wrote that his superiors did not act because
they were guilty of "criminal negligence" and they were gambling that
Mr. Moussaoui had little to offer. The lost wager, Mr. Samit said, was
paid in many lives.
Mr. Samit was followed to the witness stand by Michael Rolince, a
retired F.B.I. counterterrorism supervisor. He revealed on
cross-examination that he had never seen a document sent by Mr. Samit
to agency headquarters the day after Mr. Moussaoui's arrest, detailing
the many suspicions about his intentions.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Moussaoui was moved to New York
and held as a material witness. In Decemer 2001, he was charged in
Alexandria, Va., with six federal counts of conspiracy.
In January 2002, Mr. Moussaoui refused to enter a plea in the
case, calling the courts invalid. Judge Brinkema entered a not guilty
plea on his behalf.
A lengthy struggle then began between Mr. Moussaoui and the
lawyers Judge Brinkema had appointed on his behalf. In June, after an
evaluation of his mental health, the judge allowed Mr. Moussaoui to
represent himself, but told the lawyers to continue in the case as
That July, prosecutors amended the charges against him and
announced that they would seek the death penalty. Mr. Moussaoui said
he wished to plead guilty, but after a hearing Judge Brinkema refused
to accept a guilty plea, saying she was not convinced that Mr.
Moussaoui understood the charges and consequences, and he later
withdrew the plea.
During 2003, another lengthy legal battle began after prosecutors
announced that they would not give Mr. Moussaoui access to detained Al
Qaeda leaders to question their statements. Judge Brinkema barred the
government from seeking the death penalty, but her decision was
overturned the next year by an appeals court.
Late in 2003, the judge also stripped Mr. Moussaoui of his right
to defend himself, citing his continual courtroom outbursts and
inflammatory language in his legal filings.
In April 2005, after the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal
by Mr. Moussaoui's lawyers of the ruling allowing the government to
seek the death penalty, he entered his guilty plea.
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