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Jurors Reject Death Penalty For Moussaoui

Prosecutors were in a grimmer mood, but elements of their message were the same: that the justice system, which often seemed tied in knots by the Moussaoui case and its serial delays and twists, had worked in the end. The Justice Department insisted on trying Moussaoui in the criminal courts to show that the system could handle complex terrorism matters, resisting pressure from others in the government who wanted to bring Moussaoui before a military tribunal.

"At times this was a maddening experience," a grim-faced Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty said outside the courthouse, flanked by two dozen prosecutors. Despite the verdict, McNulty, who as U.S. attorney in Alexandria headed the prosecution until his recent promotion, said the case was an "opportunity to tell a very important story."

President Bush said during a meeting with the visiting German chancellor that the verdict left him undaunted in the fight against terrorism.

"Mr. Moussaoui got a fair trial," Bush said. "I know that it's really important for the United States to stay on the offense against these killers and bring them to justice." He added that the jury chose to spare Moussaoui's life even though that "is something that he evidently wasn't willing to do for innocent American citizens."

Some legal experts agreed that the case, and especially the jury's reluctance to impose a death sentence, had brought out the best of American justice, despite the complications. "No one can accuse this of being a kangaroo court or say Moussaoui was railroaded," Hoffman said.

But others said the verdict showed that the government had wasted years and millions of taxpayer dollars pursuing Moussaoui when prosecutors could have settled for a life sentence several years ago.

"We would have spared ourselves enormous cost and expense and having to deal with Moussaoui and giving him the forum he wanted," said Stephen A. Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University. "The government will say the 9/11 families got closure and had a chance to tell their stories, but the fact is they didn't get closure. What they got was a defendant who insulted them and demeaned their dead."

Yesterday's verdict culminated a seven-week sentencing trial that became an outpouring of emotion reflecting the national trauma of the attacks. It remained uncertain whether the man whose life was spared views the decision as a positive development or a setback. Moussaoui's testimony during the trial convinced many legal experts that he wanted to die a martyr. But jurors rejected that notion, saying on the verdict form that none of them believed that Moussaoui wanted to die or that his execution would be part of his jihad.

Instead, a majority of the jurors sided with the defense suggestion that Moussaoui had an unstable childhood and a violent father, and agreed that those were mitigating factors against execution.

In reaching its decision, the jury waded through a "special verdict form" that explored issues such as whether Moussaoui was responsible for the Sept. 11 deaths and whether executing him would make him a martyr. Federal death penalty law mandates that jurors go through such an exercise, which involves weighing the "aggravating factors" submitted by prosecutors against "mitigating factors" proposed by the defense.

Federal juries nationwide have chosen life over death by a 2 to 1 margin since the early 1990s, statistics show. None of the six defendants eligible for the death penalty in the Alexandria courthouse since 1998 has received it.

The Moussaoui jurors concluded unanimously that prosecutors had proved most of the aggravating factors, including that Moussaoui showed no remorse and that the Sept. 11 attacks caused vast damage in New York and Washington. Their reaction to the mitigating factors varied widely. Nine jurors agreed with the defense that Moussaoui's dysfunctional early childhood and abusive father were mitigating, but none found that executing Moussaoui would make him a martyr. No jurors agreed with the defense that a sentence of life in prison would be a greater punishment.

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