ALEXANDRIA, United States (AFP) -A US jury ruled that would-be Al-Qaeda suicide pilot Zacarias Moussaoui is eligible for execution, deciding his lies cost lives in the September 11 attacks.
“You will never get my blood, God curse you all,” Moussaoui, the only person tried in the United States over the deadly 2001 strikes, shouted at the public benches as he was led from court.
A new phase of the trial, with harrowing testimony from survivors and relatives of some of the nearly 3,000 people who perished, will begin Thursday, to decide whether the sentence is carried out.
Judge Leonie Brinkema pierced the suffocating tension of the seventh floor courtroom, in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, as she read out the verdict.
She declared the jury had found against Moussaoui on three capital counts of conspiracy to commit terrorism, conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and conspiracy to destroy aircraft.
“Ladies and gentlemen, are these … your unanimous verdicts?” Brinkema asked, drawing nods from the nine men and three women who had deliberated for 19 hours stretched across three days.
Moussaoui, who stunned the trial last week by declaring he had been picked to fly a hijacked airliner into the White House on September 11, 2001, sat in a trance-like state, muttering what seemed to be a prayer as the verdict was read out, a smile playing across his lips.
Before he was led into court, wearing a green prison jumpsuit and white-knit cap, Moussaoui had chanted loudly in an adjacent holding cell. “Allah Akbar” (God is great) and other, undecipherable shouts were heard.
Relatives of some of the September 11 victims, who sat for days watching court testimony, were in the third row of the courtroom.
“We couldn’t have a better closing, for all of us, even those who don’t believe in the death penalty,” said Rosemary Dillard, who lost her husband Eddy in the attacks.
“We know he is guilty.”
Abraham Scott broke down as he remembered his wife Janice, who perished at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
“It’s very emotional … it’s hard to describe. I thought I would be delighted but I wasn’t.
“I don’t think Moussaoui is totally to blame, even though I think he deserves death. I equally blame the government.”
Lorie Van Auken, a 9/11 widow from New Jersey, said she did not think Moussaoui should be eligible for death.
“I don’t think he contributed to what happened on September 11th. I think he’s been scapegoated,” she said.
Also in New York, Charles Wolf, who lost his wife in the World Trade Center, worried that if the jury follows through and says Moussaoui should be put to death, he would be rewarded with the matrydom he craves.
“I don’t want to play into his hands, I want to be smarter than that,” Wolf said.
The US government, which saw its failure to stop the attacks exposed in a catalogue of bungles, missteps and mistakes highlighted by defense lawyers, savoured a legal victory in the war on terror.
“We are pleased with the jury’s ruling in this important case,” Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said in a statement.
“Our efforts on behalf of the victims of 9/11 will continue as we pursue the next phase of this trial,” Scolinos said.
A French lawyer representing Moussaoui said defense lawyers would wage an “at all costs” battle to save his life.
“We are going to do all we can in an attempt to convince the jury … that the death penalty should not be carried out,” Francois Roux told AFP in a telephone interview.
The defense team, he said, was working on framing a picture of Zacarias Moussaoui’s past, personality and deprived upbringing in France, and would call several French witnesses to testify either in person or by video link.
The jury’s decision means they accepted the government’s argument that Moussaoui’s lies, “with lethal intent”, in jail after his arrest in August 2001 directly resulted in the deaths of at least one person on September 11.
Had he told about his knowledge of the plot, authorities would have been able to unroll a massive prevention operation, and would have stood a chance of stopping the attacks, the government claimed.
Defense lawyers had urged the jury not to make the 37-year-old Frenchman a hero, and to deny him the matyrdom on which he appeared to have set his sights.
Defense counsel Edward MacMahon said: “Moussaoui was not involved in the 9/11 plot, no matter what he says.”
Moussaoui stunned the trial with his claim that Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had ordered him to fly an airliner into the White House on September 11.
The jury will now have to decide whether Moussaoui should be executed or go to jail for life, without the possibility of parole. The new hearings will start on Thursday.