By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 6, 2006
David Yancey is anxious. He's not sure how many days he will last. All he knows is that he must go to court for his wife, Vicki, who was killed Sept. 11, 2001, for himself and for the other families with whom he has formed a bond born of grief and loss.
He wants to get a look at the man who has become the public face of terrorism and listen to the government's case against him. But his emotions remain so raw that he has worked out a plan with his therapist to help gauge his feelings. In some ways, he is more afraid of not going to the Alexandria courthouse, of staying away and then being filled with regret for the rest of his life.
Nearly 4 1/2 years after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, families of the victims and those who survived will finally get their day of reckoning. Today, amid extraordinary security, admitted al Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui will be taken from his solitary cell in the Alexandria jail to the U.S. District Court a few blocks away.
Over the next month, 18 jurors whose identities will not be revealed will be chosen to decide whether Moussaoui is eligible for the death penalty. If they agree that he is, the government will argue that he should be put to death rather than spend the rest of his life in prison. In each case, the jury would have to reach a unanimous verdict.
It will be the first time the Bush administration lays out in a public courtroom how America's enemies conspired to hijack four jetliners and left nearly 3,000 people dead. Moussaoui, 37, pleaded guilty in April to conspiring to fly a plane into the White House as part of a broader conspiracy that led to the Sept. 11 attacks. He is the only person charged or convicted in the United States in connection with the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Yancey, 50, who lives in Crystal City and is being treated for post-traumatic syndrome, is one of about 1,100 family members who have told the Justice Department that they plan to watch the proceedings. Most will view them on closed-circuit television at one of five satellite locations set up at courthouses in Boston, Manhattan, Newark, Philadelphia and Long Island, N.Y. Not all will be silent observers. Prosecutors plan to call family members to the stand to tell jurors how the attacks have affected their lives.
Some of those who attend as spectators in Alexandria will bring with them a load of anger, while others are hoping to learn what the government knew before the attacks and whether the horror could have been prevented. Some yearn for closure. Many will be looking for justice, others for vengeance for the deaths of their loved ones.
The testimony will take place amid an extraordinary backdrop. Just miles from the Pentagon, scores of reporters from around the world will descend on a courthouse already under extremely tight security.
Yancey has decided to be there when opening statements begin March 6. The sentencing hearing is expected to last one to three months.
"I have gotten to the point where number one, I can do it, and number two, it will give me a sense of closure," Yancey said. "And I think it is important to, you know, be present for it. I have also developed a tight bond with other families, and I will be there to be part of the network. We will be there in support of each other."
His wife, Vicki, was 43, the mother of two teenage daughters, now 19 and 22, an electronics technician and Navy veteran and, on the last day of her life, a passenger on American Airlines Flight 77, the plane hijackers crashed into the Pentagon.
There have been more than enough bad days for Yancey and the brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, children and grandchildren of the people who died that day. The families have watched as the attack sites have been searched, first for survivors and then the dead. Over time, the World Trade Center has gone from a pile of smoking rubble to a hole in the ground. The Pentagon has been repaired and rebuilt. The dead have been mourned and buried. And through it all, the families have waited and waited for someone to be held accountable.
Although the government has not defined what, if any, role Moussaoui had in connection with Sept. 11, he has often been described in the media as the "20th hijacker" and has said Osama bin Laden personally instructed him to fly an airplane into the White House -- on another day. He was arrested in August 2001 after taking flying lessons in Oklahoma and then training on a Boeing 747 simulator in Minnesota.
Prosecutors have told U.S. District Court Judge Leonie M. Brinkema that they want to tell the stories of 45 victims through testimony of family members and people injured in the attacks. The defense team plans to put the U.S. government on trial, arguing in court papers that officials knew far more about al Qaeda's plans than Moussaoui did, but failed to stop the attacks.
Besides selecting people to share their stories of loss with the jury, the U.S. attorney's office, through its Victim Witness Assistance Unit, has sent about 6,000 spectator application forms to family members of the victims of Sept. 11. It was part of an unprecedented government outreach to the families that involved prosecutors interviewing thousands of relatives and compiling their stories into a vast database.
Congress passed a bill in 2002 authorizing the court to set up the satellite viewing sites. It was the second time that Congress and the president authorized a closed-circuit broadcast from a federal courtroom. The first was for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. His trial was moved to Denver and victims were allowed to watch the broadcast in Oklahoma City.
Patrick Woods Sr. wants to watch the trial. He will make the short trip to the U.S. District Court building in Central Islip, Long Island. His son, Patrick Woods Jr., a 36-year-old carpenter, was on the first day of a two-day job on the 103rd floor of the South Tower when the plane hit. His son called him soon after and told him that he was okay but that there was fire below him. "I got to go, Dad," he remembers his son saying. "I got to get out of here."
Now the father must go to the trial. "I just want to go and see what's going on, see how good they got this guy," Woods said of the case against Moussaoui. He said he will attend the trial once in a while. "I'm not a fanatic about it."
Two things he is sure about: Whether Moussaoui was supposed to be on a plane that day or not, he is as guilty as the al Qaeda members who were; and he does not want Moussaoui to get the death penalty.
"If you give them the chair or give them an injection or whatever, they are going to become martyrs," he said. "They all want to go see Allah, and I don't want to help them get there too fast. I would rather have them in prison for 30 or 40 years. Listen, that's the way I feel."
Sheila Langone lost two sons at the World Trade Center. Peter was a New York firefighter, and his brother, Thomas, a police officer. Both were killed trying to rescue people from the twin towers.
"My two daughters and my two daughters-in-law and myself, we're going to get the IDs you need to watch the trial," Langone said. "We're certainly going to try to go. We won't make all of the dates, but we're certainly going to make some of them."
Cathy Ann Marchese Collins, who lives on Long Island, said she has mixed feelings about going. "Maybe if they could have done this a little quicker," she said.
She lost her sister, Laura Marchese Giglio, at the World Trade Center. But that wasn't all. Her sister's death had a rippling impact on her family. Her father had a heart attack shortly after the attacks, and now he and Collins's mother have pacemakers. Collins lost her job, adopted a baby boy from Russia using some money her parents received from the victims' compensation fund and has started a new job.
But the grief is fresh in her voice as she recalls waiting while workers searched for the remains of victims.
"We got back two bones," she said. "You take a vibrant 35-year-old woman and we got two bones back. I am more angry that we got just that, though some families got nothing. We buried her in a baby's casket. That broke my heart. But some families had it worse. Some buried empty coffins." She said that to go, she will have to take time off from her job at her church. "I wouldn't mind going once or twice to get a feel for what they are doing," she said. "But unfortunately, I can't jump through the screen and kill him myself, which is what I would like to do."
She said she is not looking to get anything out of the sentencing hearing. "Let me tell you," she said. "There is no closure. I will never get closure on this. It has caused tremendous grief and stress. It has totally changed my entire family."
Devora Wolk Pontell, whose husband, U.S. Navy Lt. Darin H. Pontell, 26, was killed in the attack on the Pentagon, volunteered to testify but was not asked. She said she thinks it is because she is an assistant Howard County prosecutor.
She and her husband were newlyweds at the time of the attacks. Although she is conflicted about watching the trial, she is not conflicted about what should happen to Moussaoui.
"I believe he was involved at some level," she said. "But whether he was the actual 20th hijacker, I don't know. It doesn't really matter to me. He was involved, he has to pay the consequences. I hope he gets the death penalty."
Pontell admits that she is not sure she could stand to listen to the testimony, particularly that of other families.
"At the beginning, I wanted to be there for every bit of it," she said. "But now, I don't know. It is difficult. It just kind of opens up old wounds. It is hard to move on if you are constantly reminded of it."
Staff writer Jerry Markon contributed to this report.