U.S. jury decision moves Moussaoui closer to execution

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

A United States federal jury found that self-confessed al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui may, according to U.S. law, be put to death after deciding that his statements to FBI agents led directly to at least one death in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Moussaoui is alleged to have had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, but did not inform FBI agents of it. Evidence of Moussaoui's knowledge of the 9/11 attacks are based on Moussaoui's own testimony, and some al-Qaida members have said that "he knew nothing" and is "boasting" of it and that Ramzi Binalshibh is the actual '20th hijacker'. Aaron Zebley, one of the FBI's two chief case agents on the Moussaoui investigation, also testified that "Moussaoui knew nothing about some key elements" of the 9/11 plot.

Moussaoui is the only person to face charges in connection with the 9/11 attacks. It was not expected that Moussaoui would testify on his own behalf during the trial, but he changed his mind and testified in the last week of March that he was supposed to fly a plane with the "shoe bomber" on 9/11. Moussaoui's lawyers said that his claim was absurd and that Moussaoui was intentionally trying to elicit an execution for martyrdom purposes.

Moussaoui refused to stand and prayed silently as the verdict was read. "You'll never get my blood, God curse you all," Moussaoui said after the jurors had left the courtroom.

The jury took four days to arrive at the verdict. "By this verdict, the jury has found that death is a possible sentence in this case," a court spokesman said. On the key question before the jurors, they answered yes on whether at least one victim died on 9/11 as a direct result of Moussaoui's actions.

If the jury had voted against his eligibility for the death penalty, Moussaoui would have been sentenced to life in prison.

The jury began weighing Moussaoui's fate last Wednesday. During its deliberations, jurors asked only one question, seeking a definition of a "weapon of mass destruction." One of the three convictions for which Moussaoui could be put to death is conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.

The jurors were told that a plane used as a missile (the tactic employed on 9/11) qualifies as a weapon of mass destruction.

Moussaoui pleaded guilty April 2005 to conspiring with al-Qaida to hijack aircraft and other crimes. At the time, he denied being part of the 9/11 plot, saying he was being trained for a separate attack, but he changed his testimony when he took the stand and claimed he was supposed to have flown a hijacked jetliner into the White House that day.

Moussaoui was in jail at the time of the attacks, but prosecutors argue federal agents would have been able to stop or at least minimize the attacks if he had revealed his al-Qaida membership and his terrorist plans when he was arrested and interrogated by federal agents.

The last people executed without killing anyone were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg fifty years ago.

Next phase of the trial

Now that this first phase of the trial to decide possible penalties is established, the jury of nine men and three women will hear more testimony, expected last as long as 3-months, on whether the 37-year-old Frenchman will face life imprisonment or execution.

Testimony will include the families of 9/11 victims who will describe the human toll of the al-Qaida operation, in which four passenger airliners were taken over and two were flown to New York City and crashed into the World Trade Center, a third airplane struck the The Pentagon, and the last crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, apparently after passengers intervened.

Court-appointed defense lawyers, whom Moussaoui has tried to reject, will summon experts to suggest he is schizophrenic after a cruel childhood during which he faced racism in France over his Moroccan ancestry.