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Moussaoui Jury Faces a Complex Defendant

The admitted terrorist could escape execution if found mentally ill. But behind the courtroom tirades is an educated and observant person.

April 17, 2006|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — When the nine men and three women gather for the last time in the seventh-floor jury room later this week, their verdict on whether Zacarias Moussaoui lives or dies may well hinge on how they size up the bearded figure in the green prison jumpsuit they have watched intently for the last six weeks.

Is he crazy?

To look at him, he would seem mad -- the bruised forehead from so much praying on his jail cell floor, his inaudible mumbles, the cold-hearted stare he flashes across the courtroom.

At times, he appears to have lost his senses -- his determination to kill all Americans, the shouted tirades at each trial recess, the riddles in which he sometimes speaks.

The Supreme Court has decreed that the mentally ill cannot be executed, and that could ultimately spare the life of the confessed Sept. 11 conspirator.

His defense lawyers, citing family history, believe he is mentally ill, even schizophrenic. He pleaded guilty to capital murder against their advice. He will not cooperate with them; he chooses instead to curse them out loud. Even his Al Qaeda handlers dismissed him as "cuckoo."

Yet he lucidly told prosecutors on the stand last week that he was neither crazy nor delusional. Moussaoui, 37, earned a master's degree in business in Britain, speaks three languages and seems remarkably familiar with American history and culture.

Judge Leonie M. Brinkema believes he is not at all touched in the head. In pretrial hearings, she found no proof he was "insane from a psychological standpoint."

His erratic behavior in court could, of course, be calculated to convince jurors he is deranged. Or by preaching hate from the witness stand, he could be inviting jurors to execute him and make him a martyr. Or he could just be more evil than mad, someone who Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist at New York University Medical Center, said takes a perverse delight in the pain of others.

Last week several dozen relatives of the Sept. 11 dead told the jury of their suffering. As many of them broke down, Moussaoui sat impassively nearby. Sometimes he yawned; sometimes he glanced nonchalantly at his fingernails. Sometimes he smiled.

"Moussaoui's lack of remorse and contempt for victims are among the characteristics exhibited by perpetrators of the most depraved crimes," Welner said.

Moussaoui clearly understands his surroundings.

He had been in this country only eight months when he was arrested three weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, after his flight training in Minnesota attracted suspicion. Since then he has been isolated in a cell.

Yet he has immersed himself in American culture. His tirades during court breaks often are full of Americanisms.

"Burn in the U.S.A.!" he taunted after videos were shown of the World Trade Center afire. After tapes were played of victims crying for help before they were burned alive, he shouted: "No pain, no gain!"

He has also versed himself on American law and performed credibly when acting occasionally as his own lawyer. He even questioned witnesses at pretrial hearings. Occasionally the judge would have to correct him on the rules of jurisprudence, but he pretty much got it.

In a 2002 hearing on his competency, Brinkema said she believed him of sound mind.

"It's very, very, very significant that the day-to-day observations of the people in the Alexandria jail consistently negate any question about there being any serious mental illness or disease in Mr. Moussaoui," she said.

"Mr. Moussaoui's cell was neat, he was appropriately dressed, his hygiene was appropriate. And we all know, because we have been in this business a long time, people with serious mental illness, that's one of the first things you look for. They are often disheveled. They sometimes smell bad. They are unkempt. That's not Mr. Moussaoui."

His jail record has been fairly spotless. He was caught hiding milk cartons, plastic spoons and a sock, items that could be fashioned into weapons. But rarely has he been difficult with the guards. Only once has he been written up.

It is in his court case that Moussaoui has appeared demented. For a year he sent hand-scrawled "legal briefs" to the court, calling Brinkema the "death judge" and the "little bitch." She warned him he must settle down.

Federal marshals, according to courthouse sources, strapped an electronic device onto his midsection and hid it under his prison suit. They could zap him should he become unruly or violent during the trial.

Moussaoui confirmed the presence of the device during his testimony last week. Asked why he was well-mannered when the trial was in session, he said he would prefer to act up, but "I have a box on my back."

Nevertheless, court documents and his testimony show he has seldom behaved in his best interests -- if his interests are conventional at all.

He agreed to be examined by mental health experts working for the government. But he refused even to talk to psychiatric experts hired for his defense.

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