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Moussaoui Can Be Executed For 9/11 Deaths, Jury Finds

By Neil A. Lewis
THE NEW YORK TIMES


ALEXANDRIA, VA.

A federal jury found on Monday that Zacarias Moussaoui was responsible for some of the deaths that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, and is thus eligible to be executed. The unanimous verdict means that Moussaoui may now be weeks from being sentenced to death.

Moussaoui sat silently as the verdict was read, seemingly mouthing prayers to himself. The jury was stoic as were most of the handful of relatives of Sept. 11 victims in the courtroom, although two quietly wiped away tears.

The jury of nine men and three women will move into the next phase of the sentencing trial beginning Thursday in which they will decide whether Moussaoui, the only person to be tried in an American courtroom in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, should actually be executed by lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

But it was the first phase of the trial that ended Monday that was viewed by lawyers and death penalty experts as the one in which Moussaoui had the greater chance to escape execution. At the time of the attacks, Moussaoui was in jail in Minnesota, having been arrested three weeks earlier on immigration charges.

The Justice Department argued that even though he did not take part in the attacks he deserved to die because at the time of his arrest he willfully concealed detailed knowledge of al-Qaida’s plans to use suicide hijackers to fly planes into buildings.

His lies, a prosecutor told the jury, “made him just as guilty as if he were at the controls of one of those planes.”

His court-appointed defense lawyers whose help he spurned countered that even though he was an Islamic extremist, he was only a minor player in al-Qaida whose senior officials found him unreliable and had not planned on using him for the Sept. 11 plot.

The defense lawyers seemed to be building a solid case until Moussaoui took the stand himself last week and proceeded to acknowledge unreservedly every element of the prosecution’s case. He asserted that he was set to be part of the Sept. 11 plot by flying a fifth airplane into the White House.

His testimony was startling in that he had earlier said that he was to have participated in a separate al-Qaida plot, had nothing to do with Sept. 11, and would fight the death penalty with all his strength.

Moussaoui, a 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan heritage, has through his courtroom outbursts and bizarre notes to the judge over the last few years, seemed at times indisputably irrational and his decision to testify against the advice of his lawyers was seen initially as another ill-considered move.

But the testimony that vaulted him closer to a death sentence was delivered in a calm and deliberate manner. It may have been provoked by his anger at the defense lawyers’ efforts to portray his role as trivial and suggested that what he wanted most of all was to be seen as a full-fledged member of al-Qaida’s Sept. 11 conspiracy. He even acknowledged how delighted he was to hear the panicked tape-recorded voice of a flight attendant pleading for her life.