WASHINGTON — Prosecutors told a federal court Thursday that they will seek the death penalty against suspected Al Qaeda terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui in connection with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, even though he was in jail Sept. 11 and apparently had no direct links to any of the 19 hijackers.
The 33-year-old French citizen deserves to die, prosecutors alleged in a much-awaited court filing, because his actions in support of the terrorist attacks were "heinous, cruel and depraved" and contributed to the deaths of more than 3,000 people and the destruction of billions of dollars in property.
The novel decision, which experts said stretches the limits of legal theory in capital cases, sparked immediate protests from death penalty opponents and deepened a diplomatic rift between the United States and Moussaoui's native country. France, which banned capital punishment in 1981, had appealed to Washington two weeks ago, asking it not to seek Moussaoui's execution.
French Justice Minister Marylise Lebranchu said Thursday in Paris that she regretted Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's decision to reject the French plea. She said that while France will continue to cooperate in the U.S. probe into the Sept. 11 attacks, "under no circumstances" would it turn over any evidence that could be used to press a death sentence against Moussaoui.
Ashcroft, a strong supporter of the death penalty, said he would not be swayed by foreign sentiment on an issue so crucial to American security.
"We ask our counterparts in the international community to respect our sovereignty, and we respect theirs," he told reporters in Florida in announcing his decision on the Moussaoui death penalty issue.
"And to the extent that they can cooperate and help us, we welcome that cooperation, and we respect their views," he said. "But . . . it's clear that America is so concerned about the safety and security of its citizens that certain crimes against the people of this country have been designated as death-eligible by the Congress of the United States."
Moussaoui is the only person charged in the United States with aiding in the Sept. 11 attacks, and his trial in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., scheduled to begin in October, promises to be the government's fullest airing of how the plot was carried out.
The FBI suspects that Moussaoui was supposed to be "the 20th hijacker" had he not been arrested in Minnesota in August after his odd behavior at a flight training school drew the suspicion of his instructors.
But investigators acknowledge that there is little strong evidence tying him directly to the plot. Although authorities allege that he was trained in Al Qaeda terrorist camps, received a $14,000 wire transfer in Oklahoma from a former roommate of hijacker Mohamed Atta, and was "an active participant" in the Sept. 11 plot, they have been unable to show that he had any direct contact with the 19 hijackers or suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Moussaoui's mother, Aicha Moussaoui, said in France on Thursday that U.S. authorities are using her son as a "scapegoat" because they "can't find the people who are truly responsible for this crime."
Moussaoui's defense attorneys withheld comment on the Justice Department's decision to seek the death penalty, saying they would respond in court. But they attacked Ashcroft for airing his decision publicly at a news conference just as court papers were being filed.
"The attorney general is breaking the spirit if not the letter of [court] rules every time he holds a press conference to announce a filing. It couldn't be for any other purpose than to influence the potential jury pool," said defense attorney Frank W. Dunham Jr.
The bench in the Eastern District of Virginia, where Moussaoui will be tried, is known as the "rocket docket" because of the speed with which it dispatches cases, and is known for its high rate of death penalty verdicts.
Legal analysts said the district's conservative reputation appears to have played a key role in Ashcroft's decision to bring a death case there. The capital charges may also increase pressure on Moussaoui to tell what he knows about Al Qaeda's workings and begin cooperating with investigators to avoid a death sentence, analysts said.
"It's certainly improper to seek the death penalty to pressure someone to give information," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. "I would hope that wouldn't be the goal here, but that's a worry."
Justice Department officials refused to comment on Ashcroft's public airing or the reasoning behind it. "The filing speaks for itself," said spokesman Bryan Sierra.