The Final Verdict

In Closing, Moussaoui Trial Rests On His Lies

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By Jerry Markon and Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 30, 2006

Zacarias Moussaoui is an arrogant, hate-filled, wannabe terrorist who lied in court about his involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, plot because he is incapable of telling the truth, jurors were told during closing arguments yesterday at his death penalty trial.

And that was Moussaoui's attorney talking.

Moussaoui is, indeed, a liar who misled the FBI when he was arrested a month before Sept. 11, 2001, prosecutors asserted -- until he told the truth when he testified that he planned to crash a hijacked airplane into the White House on that day of terror.

The role reversals have almost become routine in the death penalty trial of Moussaoui, 37, the only person convicted in the United States in connection with Sept. 11. The jury began deliberating late yesterday after both sides finished closing arguments. Jurors will consider whether Moussaoui is eligible for the death penalty, then reconvene for a second phase of the trial if they decide he is.

Moussaoui's attorneys spent much of their closing trying to undo the damage their client did to his case with his testimony Monday, when he calmly told jurors that he wanted to kill all Americans, starting with a White House attack that was to include "shoe bomber" Richard Reid.

"Mr. Moussaoui displayed his absolute contempt for every one of us,'' defense attorney Edward B. MacMahon Jr. said at the outset. Speaking directly to the 17-member jury, including five alternates, he said: "He believes that all of you sitting in that box, just because you are Americans, that you want to kill him."

MacMahon said Moussaoui's version of his Sept. 11 role was "a tall tale, a whopper even for a convicted felon, an al-Qaeda member who believes it's his obligation to lie to you." He said that the government's massive investigation never showed Moussaoui was involved and that Moussaoui had no contact with the 19 hijackers who toppled the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon and crashed a plane into a field in Pennsylvania.

Pointing to statements by top al-Qaeda leaders that disputed Moussaoui's account, MacMahon said his client "was trying to write a role for himself into history when the truth is, he was an al-Qaeda hanger-on and a nuisance to everybody."

Prosecutors might have gained the upper hand in the case with Moussaoui's testimony, especially when he admitted to a key government argument for his execution: that he lied to the FBI when he was arrested to allow the plot to go forward.

Yet prosecutors had to walk a delicate line yesterday. Their entire case that Moussaoui is eligible for the death penalty is based on how, they say, the Sept. 11 attacks could have been prevented had he told the truth. And when Moussaoui pleaded guilty last year to conspiring with al-Qaeda, he told a different story, saying that his White House assault was to be part of a second wave of attacks.

As they summed up their case, prosecutors said the Moussaoui who appeared on the witness stand Monday was telling the truth, and they quoted extensively from his testimony. "Zacarias Moussaoui came to this country to kill as many Americans as he could," Assistant U.S. Attorney David Raskin said as he began his closing. "In this trial, you have learned from the defendant himself that that is exactly what he did.''

Raskin said Moussaoui's version of events was backed up by other evidence showing his activities in August 2001 paralleled those of the hijackers. Moussaoui received about $14,000 from al-Qaeda in early August, bought two of the same type of short-blade knives the hijackers used and was rushing to complete his training on a 747 simulator.

Legally, prosecutors argued, Moussaoui's precise role is irrelevant because his lies still make him eligible for the death penalty. "Whether he was part of the first wave, the second wave or the 20th wave, he still had the same evidence in his head," Assistant U.S. Attorney David J. Novak said in his rebuttal.

The closing arguments came after a series of unusual developments in a case already known for them. A day after Moussaoui's testimony, prosecutors introduced evidence that he had met with them on the eve of the trial and offered to testify for them and against himself, in exchange for better jail conditions before his execution. Moussaoui withdrew the offer when he realized he had a constitutional right to testify on his behalf, despite his attorneys' objections.

Moussaoui's actions and history of courtroom outbursts have long raised questions about his mental state. When he tried to fire his attorneys and represent himself in 2002, he was evaluated by a court-appointed psychiatrist. U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema found him mentally competent and allowed him to represent himself, though she later revoked that right after Moussaoui filed blistering handwritten motions from jail.

Brinkema also allowed Moussaoui to enter a guilty plea last year, after his attorneys argued he was mentally incompetent to make it. When he initially notified the government that he intended to plead guilty, Moussaoui said he was willing to accept the possibility of a death sentence, sources familiar with the case have said.

Richard Moran, a professor of sociology and criminology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, said that although Moussaoui's recent actions "probably seal his fate with the jury," his insistence on testifying is rational.

"He's asserting his right to be taken seriously and offer an explanation for his actions,'' Moran said. "He doesn't want to be dismissed as a kind of two-bit troublemaker whose actions can only be explained by mental instability or illness."

Asked whether he thought Moussaoui wanted to die, Moran, who has testified in more than two dozen death penalty hearings, said: "I would think he prefers death and the attention and martyr status he might achieve to rotting in a cell for the rest of his life."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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