Jurors Reject Death Penalty For Moussaoui

By Jerry Markon and Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 4, 2006

Al-Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui will spend the rest of his life in a maximum security prison for his role in the Sept. 11 attacks after a federal jury rejected the government's four-year quest to secure his execution for the deadliest terrorist strike on U.S. soil.

After weeks of listening to harrowing testimony from 9/11 family members, hearing heartbreaking emergency calls and watching painful footage of victims jumping to their deaths, the anonymous jury of nine men and three women methodically deliberated for 41 hours over seven days before reaching its verdict yesterday.

Jurors carefully went over each question on a 42-page verdict form that gave only a few clues to their thoughts and reasoning. In the end, though, the form indicated that prosecutors could not surmount the main obstacle hanging over their case from the start: Moussaoui did not hijack anything Sept. 11, 2001, because he was sitting in jail.

The panel could not decide unanimously that Moussaoui caused the nearly 3,000 deaths, nor could it agree that he committed his crimes "in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner." Three jurors took it upon themselves to write that Moussaoui had "limited knowledge of the 9/11 attack plans."

"The jury seemed to be saying that he is a bit player, someone at the periphery," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. "It boils down to someone whose hands were not drenched in blood."

As the verdict was announced in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Moussaoui rolled his eyes and looked glum. But he yelled, "America, you lost. . . . I won!" as he was escorted back to jail. Family members of Sept. 11 victims, who had long awaited this day, showed little visible reaction in the courtroom's third row.

Moussaoui, 37, is the only person charged in a U.S. courtroom in connection with the attacks, in which planes were crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. After four years of delays, twists and turns in his criminal case, he pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy.

He will live out his days in the nation's super-maximum security prison in Florence, Colo. Prosecutors cannot appeal the jury's decision, which is technically a recommendation but which U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema is legally bound to uphold. She is scheduled to formally sentence Moussaoui this morning.

The verdict was a resounding victory for Moussaoui's defense team, which battled through the higher and lower courts for a client who admitted allegiance to Osama bin Laden, vowed to kill Americans, pleaded guilty against lawyers' advice to the country's worst crime, fought them at every turn and visibly despised them.

Outside the courthouse yesterday, one of them, Gerald T. Zerkin -- derisively called a "Jewish zealot" by Moussaoui -- said the jurors concluded that Moussaoui's "knowledge of 9/11 and his role in 9/11 was not that great."

Defense lawyer Edward B. MacMahon Jr. said the dozen Sept. 11 family members who testified for the defense -- in defiance of more than three dozen who took the stand for the prosecution -- had "testified as citizens of a free nation, uncowed by terrorism."

"None of them testified for Moussaoui," MacMahon said.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company