By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 7, 2005
Federal prosecutors revealed their strategy yesterday for introducing the testimony of Sept. 11 victims at the death penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, saying they intend to display in court the name and photograph of every person killed in the terrorist assaults.
The government plans to tell in detail the stories of 45 victims through testimony from family members and people injured in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, prosecutors said in a filing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.
It is unknown how many victims would testify at the trial of Moussaoui, the only person convicted in a U.S. case in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Some victims would testify about the loss of several loved ones. But prosecutors said they intend to lay out a cross section of information about victims from the Trade Center, the Pentagon and all four hijacked flights. Nearly 3,000 people were killed that day.
"We believe that 45 stories of victim impact represents a reasonable sample -- less than one percent of all those murdered or injured on September 11, 2001 -- to convey properly the devastation caused on that infamous day," the filing says.
The plan, which requires a federal judge's approval, is the most detailed look at how the government plans to proceed in what is expected to be the most emotional part of the death-penalty phase of Moussaoui's trial. For the first time, Sept. 11 victims would have their day in court in a U.S. case, part of a massive and unprecedented victim-impact project mounted by federal prosecutors in Alexandria.
Under the project, designed to help relatives deal with their loss and to secure their testimony at trial, prosecutors and others have interviewed about 1,600 victims and continue to maintain a database of about 8,000 family members. Federal law specifies that family members of those killed or injured Sept. 11 also are considered victims, entitling them to such rights as being notified of developments in the case.
Attorneys for Moussaoui would not comment on the government's plan. Moussaoui, 37, pleaded guilty in April to six counts of conspiring with al Qaeda in the attacks. He denied that he was planning to be a Sept. 11 hijacker, saying his attack was to come later.
A federal jury will now decide if Moussaoui will be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison. Jury selection is scheduled to begin Feb. 6.
Under federal law, anyone who was "directly or proximately harmed" as a result of a federal crime has the right to be heard publicly at sentencing, and prosecutors said several hundred Sept. 11 victims asked to testify at Moussaoui's trial.
But the government filing calls that number "impracticable," saying it would prolong and "unduly complicate" the proceedings. So prosecutors are asking U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to invoke an exception for cases with multiple victims and allow them to limit who can testify.
Those who lost loved ones Sept. 11 said yesterday that they understand the government's argument. "There has to be some reasonable, practical limitation," said Bethesda resident D. Hamilton Peterson. "The enormity of the impact of this case is such that it would be impossible to do otherwise."
Peterson's father, Donald A. Peterson, and his stepmother, Jean H. Peterson, were killed when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in western Pennsylvania on Sept. 11.
David Yancey, whose wife, Vicki, was aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it hit the Pentagon, said it could be distracting to the jury to have too many family members testify. Yancey, of Arlington, said some family members will find it therapeutic to take the stand. "For some people, I believe it would be a sense of closure," he said.
The government filing did not indicate exactly how prosecutors plan to display the names and photographs -- assuming a photograph could be obtained -- of every Sept. 11 victim. It said those testifying would represent a cross section of races, religions, economic statuses and occupations.