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Terrorist a Step Closer to Death

Jurors will decide if Moussaoui is to be executed. Defense may argue he is mentally ill.

April 04, 2006|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A federal jury concluded Monday that terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui is eligible for the death penalty, sending his trial into a final stage that will decide whether he deserves to forfeit his life for the deaths of Sept. 11, 2001, or is too unstable mentally to warrant execution.

The unanimous decision marked a major victory for the government, which has struggled to win trial verdicts in terrorism prosecutions since the Sept. 11 attacks. Prosecutors were aided by Moussaoui himself, whose insistence on taking the stand helped offset government blunders.

The jury of nine men and three women deliberated about 16 hours over four days before sending word that they had reached a decision. Lawyers, relatives of Sept. 11 victims, federal marshals and others began packing the courtroom well in advance of the 4 p.m. reading of the verdict.

Before the jury was brought in, Moussaoui could be heard yelling from behind a courtroom wall, where he was kept in a holding cell. The jurors then entered the courtroom and the forewoman, a teacher from Virginia, said they had reached a verdict.

When Moussaoui was asked to stand for the verdict, he refused. Instead, he remained in his seat, his head tilted back against the wall, speaking softly to himself as if in prayer.

After U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema read the verdict, the 37-year-old French citizen screamed at prosecutors, "You'll never get my blood! God curse your souls!"

The second and final phase of the sentencing trial, expected to last two to three weeks, is to begin Thursday. Prosecutors will urge the same jury of nine men and three women to sentence him to death. They will focus on his self-avowed loyalty to Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

They also will summon up to 45 people who were injured or lost loved ones on Sept. 11 and have them tell stories of how they suffered over the last 4 1/2 years.

Lawyers for Moussaoui, a Muslim of Moroccan descent, plan to present mitigating evidence and testimony about his troubled childhood in Europe, as well as indications that he suffers from schizophrenia. That is crucial, because the Supreme Court has ruled that the mentally ill cannot be executed.

If jurors come back with a death sentence, it will mark the end of the only Sept. 11-related prosecution in the United States and the only terrorism case since the country was attacked in which a defendant received the ultimate punishment. The two-stage process -- of first determining whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty and then deciding whether he should die -- is standard procedure in the federal system, but it usually is part of a single deliberation. Brinkema decided to split the process into separate proceedings.

The verdict found that Moussaoui was eligible under federal law because he acted intentionally. Now, the jury will consider a list of "aggravating factors" under the law to determine whether he should be put to death. Among the factors is whether the crime was committed in an especially "heinous, cruel or depraved manner."

Defense lawyers said Moussaoui's mental state and his decision to testify in his own defense would be issues they would raise on appeal. But they said those prospects appeared slim in the near term, especially in the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Brinkema's court.

Statistics show that of all the federal appeals courts, "they are the least likely to overturn a death sentence," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Moussaoui was taking flight lessons in Minnesota when he was arrested less than a month before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The government contended that if he had told FBI agents what he knew about the plot, they could have headed off the attacks. Jurors agreed, drawing the key conclusion that Moussaoui was directly responsible for at least one of the nearly 3,000 deaths on Sept. 11.

Prosecutors stumbled badly when a government lawyer improperly coached aviation witnesses ahead of their testimony, and the judge barred much of the government's case.

The defense introduced evidence that the FBI ignored numerous other warnings of impending attacks and were likely to have ignored Moussaoui's as well. Defense lawyers also obtained interrogation statements from high-level Al Qaeda operatives who said Moussaoui was incompetent and had not been slated to play any role on Sept. 11.

But Moussaoui's testimony, over his lawyers' objections, dramatically changed the tenor of the trial. He claimed he was scheduled to hijack a fifth airplane and fly it into the White House on Sept. 11. He explained matter-of-factly how he had looked forward to killing Americans. He said after his arrest that he lied to the FBI so that the plot could go forward.

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