Moussaoui's Fate Is in the Jury's Hands

By Jerry Markon and Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Jurors began deliberating the fate of Sept. 11, 2001, conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui yesterday after prosecutors implored them to send a message to the terrorists who would strike America again and sentence the al-Qaeda operative to death.

"This is the United States of America, and we are not going to put up with a bunch of thugs who invoke God's name to slaughter 3,000 people," said Assistant U.S. Attorney David J. Novak, during closing arguments in which prosecutors called Moussaoui "pure evil" and said "there is no place on this good Earth" for him.

Defense attorneys countered that jurors should reject the "easy answer" of sentencing Moussaoui to death. Because Moussaoui is seeking martyrdom, defense attorney Gerald T. Zerkin suggested, the jury should do the opposite and force him to spend the rest of his life withering in prison.

"He wants you to sentence him to death," Zerkin said. "He is baiting you into it. He came to America to die, in jihad, and you are his last chance."

After all of the emotion and all of the tears, all the weighty matters of national security and the calls for justice for the dead, the case for the execution of Zacarias Moussaoui is now in the hands of the federal jury in Alexandria.

Jurors began deliberating Moussaoui's fate yesterday afternoon after closing arguments that reflected the intense feelings that animated the seven-week sentencing trial. Once more, prosecutors flashed photographs of some of the nearly 3,000 people killed and played videotapes of victims jumping from the burning World Trade Center.

Defense attorneys displayed photos of their own in the U.S. District courtroom. One showed Martin Luther King Jr., who witnesses said was Moussaoui's childhood hero. A second featured al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. "How did Moussaoui go from having him as an idol," Zerkin said, referring to King, "to having him [bin Laden] as his spiritual guide."

The answer, Zerkin suggested, lies in Moussaoui's troubled childhood, which led to an adulthood in which he was easy prey for recruitment by terrorists.

Jurors filed out of the courtroom with their heads down, looking grim. The last one to leave, a man in a blue suit and a red tie, stared across the courtroom at Moussaoui. The defendant did not look back but had earlier smiled when prosecutors described the suffering of victims of the attacks on the trade center and Pentagon. As he left the courtroom for a midmorning break, Moussaoui shouted: "You'll never get me, America! Never, never!"

Moussaoui, 37, pleaded guilty last year to conspiring with al-Qaeda. He is the only person charged in the United States in connection with Sept. 11. The jury found him eligible for the death penalty last month, then returned to court for a second phase in which prosecutors presented relatives of victims, many sobbing on the stand, who told of their pain and loss. They also showed people jumping, and the towers falling, and played 911 calls of frantic people about to be overcome by smoke and flames.

The Justice Department chose to charge Moussaoui in Alexandria -- instead of New York, where most major terrorism trials have been held -- in part because the jury pool is considered more conservative.

Yet the effort to secure Moussaoui's execution is fighting the weight of recent history: A federal jury in Alexandria has never voted for a sentence of death. Five times since 1998, in cases with defendants ranging from convicted spy Brian P. Regan to two members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang convicted of killing a federal witness, juries have instead chosen life in prison.

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