ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (AP) – The cockpit recording from the hijacked jetliner that passengers tried to retake on Sept. 11 will be played in public for the first time, at the sentencing trial of al-Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, the judge ruled.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said Wednesday the jury considering whether to execute Moussaoui could hear the recording from United Airlines Flight 93 and see a transcript of it.
The flight is best known for one passenger’s rallying cry to other passengers, “Let’s roll,” which was overheard over a cell phone connection between a passenger and a family member on the ground.
This cockpit tape was played privately April 18, 2002, for the families of Flight 93 victims, but it has never been played in public. Family members told reporters afterward they heard “yelling and screaming” and muffled voices that were hard to identify.
“Listening to the tape confirmed for me that there was a heroic teamwork effort,” said Alice Hoglan, whose son, Mark Bingham, called from the air before the plane crashed into an empty field, the only one of four jets hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, that did not kill anyone on the ground.
There has been debate over whether the hijackers intended to crash it into the U.S. Capitol or the White House. But last week the Moussaoui jury heard a government-approved summary of statements made during interrogation of the captured mastermind of Sept. 11, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who said it was to hit the Capitol.
Prosecutors asked the judge to order the tape and transcript kept sealed from the general public after it is played in open court, but Brinkema did not decide that question immediately.
Noting that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered trial evidence made public, she said relatives of Flight 93 victims would have until next Tuesday to advise her whether they object to general release of the material. She said if no family members object, she will release the material to the general public the day after it is submitted into evidence. No date was set for that.
The sentencing trial of Moussaoui resumes Thursday morning. In the first phase, the jury unanimously found the 37-year-old Frenchman eligible for the death penalty on counts of conspiracy to commit international terrorism, to commit air piracy and to use weapons of mass destruction.
The second phase will examine aggravating and mitigating evidence about his crimes, and the jury will decide whether he deserves to be executed or imprisoned for life for his role in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Much of what happened aboard Flight 93 is known because passengers used cell phones in flight to call their loved ones. Earlier in the trial, prosecutor David Raskin transfixed the jury by reading accounts of the last moments of several of the Sept. 11 planes based on cell phone calls by passengers and flight attendants to family members and ground controllers.
A Hollywood movie re-enacting Flight 93 is to be released later this month.
Discussing general public release of the tape and transcript, Brinkema wrote, “The court is also mindful that family members of the flight crew or passengers on Flight 93 may object to the voices of their loved ones being publicly revealed in this manner.”
Prosecutors began calling relatives of the victims Wednesday afternoon to advise them of the judge’s decision. Thursday is the only trial day this week. The sentencing’s second phase begins then, with opening statements from both sides before any testimony is heard. The jury will return next week to its Monday-Thursday schedule. Phase 2 could last two weeks to two months.
The government will bring in testimony in an effort to prove that Moussaoui’s victims suffered cruel physical abuse; that his acts resulted in “serious physical and emotional injuries, including maiming, disfigurement and permanent disability” for numerous survivors; and that his acts injured or harmed not only the victims but also their families, friends and co-workers.
Prosecutors intend to identify for the jury, by name and photograph, each of 2,972 victims and to call witnesses to tell the stories of about 45 victims. This sample will include victims from each of the four hijacked jetliners, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And it will cover the diversity of race, religion, economic status and occupations of victims as well as the range of people affected, including spouses, parents, children, siblings and friends.
To make a case for life in prison, the court-appointed defense team wants to call a doctor to testify that Moussaoui is schizophrenic and to call sociologists to describe his impoverished childhood in France and the racism he encountered in France and England because of his Moroccan ancestry. They have yet to outline all the mitigating factors they hope to show.
To obtain a death penalty, the prosecution must prove at least one of three aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt: Moussaoui knowingly created a grave risk of death to one or more innocent bystanders; he subjected victims to serious physical abuse in a heinous and cruel way or relished the killing; or he acted to cause death or terrorism after substantial planning or premeditation.
That plus any other damage they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt would have to outweigh any mitigating evidence submitted on Moussaoui’s behalf.