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Moussaoui trial: more heat than light in the end

Judge tells Al Qaeda terrorist he won't go out in a 'bang of glory' as she sentences him to life in prison.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 5, 2006



Zacarias Moussaoui's confrontation with the US justice system ended the way it began more than four years ago - with vocal defiance and professions of allegiance to Al Qaeda.

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"God save Osama Bin Laden. You will never get him," Mr. Moussaoui told a jammed courtroom at his sentencing on Thursday in Alexandria, Va.

He made his comments shortly before US District Judge Leonie Brinkema sentenced him to spend the rest of his life in federal prison without the possibility of parole. He is expected to be sent to a solitary confinement cell at the so-called "Supermax" prison in Florence, Colo.

As a vehicle to uncover the truth of what actually happened in the run-up to the 9/11 terror attacks, the Moussaoui trial produced more heat than light.

Judge Brinkema, often irked by Moussaoui's regular outbursts during his sentencing trial, told him he would be locked away in a place where no one would hear him. The judge told Moussaoui that he came to the US to die as a martyr "in a great big bang of glory" - but that would not happen. "You will die with a whimper," the judge said.

The action came a day after a jury of nine men and three women declined to authorize a death sentence for Moussaoui. Instead, by default, the sentence became life in prison. The sentence came despite what at times appeared to be Moussaoui's best efforts to convince the jury that he deserved to be executed. He is the only person ever charged in the US with involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks.

Moussaoui's sentencing trial marked the first time victims have testified on both sides in a capital punishment case. Surviving family members were called by prosecutors to recount for jurors the pain and suffering the terror attacks had caused in their lives.

But defense attorneys called surviving family members as well. Although the witnesses were instructed not to testify about their desire for a death or life sentence, the defense lawyers presented their testimony to offer the jury a view that not all Americans believe death would be the best sentence.

"A number of us have tried to turn our anger and pain into solutions," says Terry Rockefeller, whose sister died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. "For many who lost loved ones that Tuesday morning, the answer is not more killing to attempt to solve the past, but rather steps to a future in which all killing is condemned and terrorists cannot find purchase."

Ms. Rockefeller is a member of an anti-death-penalty group called Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. She was among 12 family members called to testify for the defense.

Other family members of 9/11 victims are upset that Moussaoui won't be executed.

Lisa Dolan, whose husband was killed in the attack on the Pentagon, was one of three family members who were given the opportunity to directly address Moussaoui at the hearing. "I told Mr. Moussaoui that he still has one final judgment day and that is where I get my comfort," she told reporters outside the courthouse.

The action by the jury represents a partial rejection of the government's theory that Moussaoui deserved a death sentence even though he was in US custody on 9/11. Prosecutors argued that he was just as responsible as the hijackers for the death and destruction of the attacks because he had preknowledge of the 9/11 plot, but failed to disclose details of the plan to FBI agents upon his arrest in August 2001. Had he told the truth to the FBI, the Al Qaeda plot would have been foiled, prosecutors said.

The verdict form filled out by the jury during its deliberations, suggests that three of the 12 jurors opposed a death sentence because in their view Moussaoui had "limited knowledge of the 9/11 attack plans." Under federal law, all 12 jurors must agree to impose a death sentence.

A life sentence was virtually guaranteed a year ago when Moussaoui agreed to plead guilty to the 9/11 conspiracy charges. But the Justice Department opted instead to seek the death penalty.

Legal analysts say the Moussaoui case underscores the difficulties of bringing terror suspects to trial in civilian courts. Some observers suggest it helps make the case for the necessity of military commissions to try suspected terrorists.

But others see the Moussaoui case as proof that the federal court system is robust enough to handle difficult cases and difficult defendants.

"I think it is important to keep these cases in the federal court system, as difficult as this case was. And maybe it is the worst-case scenario," says Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. "Think about this in contrast to ... a military tribunal and what that would have meant, especially internationally."

Moussaoui stunned many terrorism experts when he testified that he was tasked to fly an airplane into the White House on 9/11 with convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid. The government's own evidence suggested that Moussaoui had preknowledge of the plot, not that he was to become an active participant in it.

Many legal analysts said it suggested Moussaoui wanted to become a martyr and was tailoring his testimony to help achieve that result. He took the stand against the advice of defense lawyers appointed to represent him.

Those lawyers had attempted to counter their client's testimony with evidence that he was training not for 9/11 but for a second wave of Al Qaeda attacks.

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