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Families of 9/11 Victims Testify for Moussaoui

His defense hopes some relatives' messages of healing will soften the jury deciding his fate.

April 20, 2006|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Defense attorneys for Zacarias Moussaoui on Wednesday presented their own group of Sept. 11 victims, whose message of forgiveness was strikingly different from what had been heard in the courtroom so far.

None of the half-dozen defense witnesses -- parents who lost children, a wife missing her husband, a son without a father -- was asked whether the jury should spare the life of the admitted Al Qaeda terrorist. They spoke instead of the changes in their lives over the last 4 1/2 years and their refusal to, as one put it, "get caught up in a whirlpool of frustration and sadness and anger."

Whereas family members testifying for the government had described broken lives and monumental despair, those called by the defense said they were finding ways to move past their grief.

The prosecution's witnesses had told of children failing at school and of parents so traumatized that they still could not leave their homes. The defense witnesses said they had joined support groups to understand radical Islam and were reaching out for other ways to end mistrust between two cultures.

About 40 relatives of the dead had taken the stand for the prosecution; most broke into tears. Some sobbed.

None of the six who testified Wednesday for the defense cried, although a man whose father had died nearly lost his composure when he said he and his father had luckily mended their estranged relationship before that fateful day.

"I realize now how precious life is," said Anthony Aversano, whose father, Louis, was killed in the World Trade Center. "How I fight the terror in me today is to live my life well."

Moussaoui pleaded guilty to capital murder last year. Although he was in jail for a visa violation on Sept. 11, the jury determined in the first part of his sentencing trial that he was eligible for the death penalty, because if he had told FBI agents about the plot, they could have acted to halt the attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

Using Sept. 11 victims was a gamble for the defense, since it meant again exposing the jury to the horrors of that morning -- but the nine male and three female jurors showed little emotion. Their verdict of death or life in prison could come next week.

Marilynn Rosenthal of Ann Arbor, Mich., said she was coping by researching a book about Al Qaeda and the kind of man who would pilot the plane that crashed into the World Trade Center, killing her son, Josh.

"We all have a very strong feeling that we are not going to get caught up in a whirlpool of frustration and sadness and anger," she said. "Everyone in the family wants something good and positive to come out of what happened to Josh, and to all the sons and daughters, and to our country."

Robin Theurkauf's husband, Tom, also was killed at the World Trade Center. She quickly went back to work as a teacher, and their three sons are adjusting well in school. But she made it clear that their father was never coming back, something many of the prosecution witnesses indicated that they were unable to explain to their children.

"I didn't want them to have any glimmer of hope," she said. "We made quite sure of that.... We are healing ourselves in our own house."

She has begun taking divinity classes at Yale University, near her home in Connecticut. "We are all sinners and broken people," she said. "On the other hand, we are all children of God."

Patricia Perry of Long Island, N.Y., was proud of the bravery of her son, John, an off-duty New York City police officer last seen with a colleague directing those fleeing from the burning towers.

"They didn't want them to be frightened," she said. "And they were not in great fear for their own lives -- until the towers came down."

All life is special, she said, adding: "We were most blessed he was our son."

Orlando Rodriguez teaches criminology in White Plains, N.Y. Since the death of his son, Greg, in the World Trade Center, he has started a new class on the roots of terrorism. Through his students, he said, he is tempering his grief.

He also is trying to adopt his son's outlook on life: "He always had a capacity to look at people as human beings, regardless of their faults."

And Donald Bane, an Episcopal priest who lives near Dover, Del., responded to the death of his son, Michael, in the World Trade Center by taking classes in Muslim-Christian culture.

"That gave me some feeling of release, instead of just nurturing anger -- of doing something that will help this not happen again," he said.

They miss Michael greatly, Bane said, but know that his grit and optimism live on: On the day he died, his stepmother had a vision of him walking down a flight of stairs, looking back at her.

"He said," Bane told the jurors, "he would be all right."

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