ALEXANDRIA, Va., AP Zacarias Moussaoui claimed victory over America after a jury rejected the government’s effort to put the Sept. 11 conspirator to death and instead decided to lock him away in prison for the rest of his life.
Moussaoui, who spent much of his two-month trial cursing America, blessing al-Qaida and mocking the suffering of 9/11 victims, offered one more taunt after the jury reached its verdict Wednesday: “America, you lost. … I won,” he proclaimed, clapping his hands as he was escorted from the courtroom.
Moussaoui gets one last chance to speak publicly Thursday when U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema sentences him to life in prison without the possibility of release for his part in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.
Barring an unforeseen circumstance, Moussaoui then will be sent to a super-maximum federal prison in Colorado under special conditions that will prevent him from having any contact with the outside world.
After seven days of deliberation, the nine men and three women rebuffed the government’s appeal for death for the only person charged in this country in the suicide hijackings of four commercial jetliners that killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001.
From the White House, President Bush said the verdict “represents the end of this case but not an end to the fight against terror.” He said Moussaoui got a fair trial and the jury spared his life, “which is something that he evidently wasn’t willing to do for innocent American citizens.”
Families of 9/11 victims expressed mixed views.
Carie Lemack, whose mother, Judy Larocque, died on hijacked American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into New York’s World Trade Center, said her mom didn’t believe in the death penalty and would have been glad Moussaoui was sentenced to life. “This man was an al-Qaida wannabe … who deserves to rot in jail.”
Patricia Reilly, who lost her sister Lorraine Lee in the New York attacks, was deflated. “I guess in this country you can kill 3,000 people and not pay with your life,” she said. “I feel very much let down by this country.”
It is not known how many jurors wanted Moussaoui sentenced to life and how many wanted a death sentence. Under federal law, a defendant automatically receives life in prison when a jury is split. The 42-page verdict form gives no indication on how, or if, the jury split.
The jury rejected two key defense arguments — that Moussaoui suffers a mental illness and that executing him would make him a martyr. No jurors indicated on the verdict form that they gave any weight to those arguments.
Nine jurors found that Moussaoui suffered a difficult childhood in a dysfunctional family where he spent many of his early years in and out of orphanages. Three found that Moussaoui only played a minor role in 9/11.
Defense lawyer Gerald Zerkin said outside court that “it was obvious that they thought his role in 9/11 was not very great and that played a significant role in their decision.”
Prosecutors, who pursued the Moussaoui case for 4 1/2 years, declared themselves satisfied with the jury’s verdict.
Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who was chief prosecutor in Alexandria in December 2001 when Moussaoui first was charged, noted that the jury in the trial’s first phase found Moussaoui responsible for the 9/11 attacks by concealing the al-Qaida plot from FBI agents after he was arrested in August 2001 on immigration violations.
“It only takes one juror to reject imposition of the death penalty, and we respect that,” McNulty said.
The trial put jurors on an emotional roller coaster and gave the 37-year-old Frenchman a platform to needle Americans and revel in the pain of the victims and their families.
When the verdict was announced, Moussaoui showed no visible reaction and sat slouched in his chair, refusing to stand with his defense team. He had declined to cooperate with his court-appointed lawyers throughout the trial.
The verdict was received with silence in the packed courtroom, where one row was lined with victims’ families.
In their successful defense of Moussaoui, defense lawyers overcame the impact of two dramatic appearances by Moussaoui himself — first to renounce his four years of denying any involvement in the attacks and then to gloat over the pain of those who lost loved ones.
Using evidence gathered in the largest investigation in U.S. history, prosecutors achieved a preliminary victory last month when the jury ruled Moussaoui’s lies to federal agents a month before the attacks made him eligible for the death penalty because they kept agents from discovering some of the hijackers.
But even with heart-rending testimony from nearly four dozen victims and their relatives — testimony that forced some jurors to wipe tears from their eyes — the jury was not convinced that Moussaoui, who was in jail on Sept. 11, deserved to die.
The case broke new ground in the understanding of Sept. 11, releasing to the public the first transcript and playing in court the cockpit tape of United Flight 93’s last half hour. The tape captured the sounds of terrorists hijacking the aircraft over Pennsylvania and passengers trying to retake the jet until it crashed in a field.