'20th hijacker' is eligible for death penalty, jury says

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The Independent US

A jury has opened the way for the only person convicted over the 9/11 attacks to be executed after it decided unanimously that the lies of Zacarias Moussaoui were responsible for at least one death on the day that the US was attacked by al-Qa'ida. The same jury will now hear testimony from the relatives of those who died that day, before deciding whether he should actually be sentenced to death.

Moussaoui, 37, the so-called 20th hijacker, was in custody at the time of the attacks on New York and Washington, but prosecutors argued that by lying to FBI investigators he had actively prevented them from stopping the 9/11 plot to seize four civilian airliners.

"By this verdict, the jury has found that death is a possible sentence in this case," said a court spokesman Ed Adams, outside the federal courthouse in Alexandria, near Washington.

Moussaoui, a French citizen, prayed in silence as he waited for the verdict to be delivered. He refused to stand up to hear the decision and said: "You'll never get my blood, God curse you all." The twisting, tortuous trial of Moussaoui will now go to yet another stage where the jury members will listen to testimony as to whether he should be executed. This will include the words of 9/11 victims' relatives who will describe the human impact that resulted from his actions. At the same time Moussaoui's court-appointed defence lawyers will call experts to argue he is schizophrenic.

Moussaoui had previously pleaded guilty to conspiring with al-Qa'ida though he initially denied being part of the 9/11 plot. Some observers believed that it would be hard for the prosecution to make the case for the death penalty on a conspiracy case, especially after an FBI field agent testified that his repeated warnings about Moussaoui's possible involvement with al-Qa'ida had been ignored by senior officials.

But then Moussaoui appeared to seal his fate when he took to the stand and claimed that he was due to fly Flight 93 into the White House. This was the plane which ultimately crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

The Bush administration has been desperate to bring this trial to a conclusion, partly perhaps, for symbolic reasons. At the same time, given Moussaoui's often-changing story, it is doubtful that any clearer picture has been learnt about the 9/11 plot, or indeed whether he genuinely was to have been involved.

The jury had been considering its decision since last Wednesday.

Hamilton Peterson, whose parents died on Flight 93, said: "I am grateful to the jury for having made that decision and I feel confident in light of Moussaoui's own testimony that it is the right decision and look forward to the next phase of the case and the final determination of execution."

If the jury decides against the death penalty he will be automatically sentenced to life imprisonment.