Moussaoui escapes death penalty and tells court 'America lost, I won'

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The Independent US

A jury in Virginia determined yesterday that Zacarias Moussaoui, the al-Qa'ida conspirator who pleaded guilty to charges connected with the terror attacks on the US on 11 September 2001, should be sentenced to life in prison without parole, rejecting the prosecution request that he should be executed.

The result was a disappointment for government prosecutors and the Bush administration. Moussaoui remains the only individual tried so far in relation to the attacks that killed almost 3,000 people. The government committed four-and-a-half years to trying him and tens of millions of dollars.

The jury's verdict comes at the end of a penalty phase marked by weeks of harrowing testimony about the horrors of the attacks as well as the playing of cockpit tapes from the fourth plane, United 93, that crashed in Pennsylvania. It is binding on Judge Leonie Brinkema. She will reconvene the court this morning to set the sentence of life imprisonment.

A 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent, Moussaoui showed contempt for the proceedings throughout and, in essence, testified against himself. He told the court he was meant to fly a fifth plane into the White House with the foiled shoe-bomber from Britain, Richard Reid. The government later said it had no evidence to support that claim, however.

After sentencing today, Moussaoui is likely to be sent to America's super-maximum prison in Florence, Colorado ­ nicknamed "Alcatraz in the Rockies" ­ where inmates are subjected to non-stop solitary confinement with no group recreation.

As he was led out of the courtroom, Moussaoui voiced his defiance, clapping his hands and shouting out, "America lost. I won". He also flashed a "V" sign for victory.

The decision, reached after seven days of deliberation by the jury of nine men and three women, was read before a silent courtroom.

Surprise was the first reaction of many observers that jurors had spared Moussaoui the ultimate punishment. The jury had concluded in late March that Moussaoui was eligible for the death penalty.

Thereafter, prosecutors sought to dramatise the horrors of 11 September, 2001, bringing ­ among others ­ former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to testify in court as well as family members of some victims.

For some family members, the conclusion of the trial may offer a small degree of closure to their suffering.

The jury had already determined that Moussaoui, who was prison on immigration violations on the day of the attacks, had lied to the FBI about his ties to al-Qa'ida and about the 2001 conspiracy and that, had he told the truth, the attacks of one month later might have been averted.

But there are many critics of the proceedings who continue to argue the government was prosecuting the wrong person. It is widely believed the US has at least two people in custody considered to hold direct responsibility for the attacks who have not been brought to trial.

Only five members of the jury felt Moussaoui should be spared execution but their stance made it impossible for jurors to reach the required unanimity.

Jurors did, however, reject a defence argument that killing Moussaoui would confer martyrdom on him. By contrast, jury members showed consideration for other mitigating factors including the difficulties of his childhood and the violence displayed by his father.

Acknowledging the end of the trial, President Bush said at the White House the verdict "represents the end of this case, but not an end to the fight against terror".

Was he the '20th hijacker' or did he just want notoriety?

Americans out for revenge may not be satisfied with yesterday's decision but they can take solace that Moussaoui probably isn't satisfied either.

Moussaoui's lawyers, argued he deliberately aggrandised his role in the 11 September plot to gain notoriety and martyrdom via the death penalty. On the two occasions he spoke during the trial, he did everything he could to incriminate himself, to the point of gloating over the suffering and death the attacks caused.

The 37-year-old Frenchman has been a bit of a puzzle ever since he came under suspicion at a Minnesota flight school three weeks before 11 September. Was he the so-called "20th hijacker", or was he considered too incompetent for that role? Did he appear unhinged because he was a radical Muslim fundamentalist, or was he insane? Such questions were never fully resolved by the court.

Moussaoui came from a rough background in the Paris suburbs, then moved to London for nine years where he attended the Finsbury Park mosque. According to prosecutors, he attended al-Qa'ida camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, and held meetings with radicals in Malaysia in 2000.

By early 2001 he was in the United States, attending a flight training course in Oklahoma but failing to qualify.

He was arrested on an immigration violation and might have become the thread that undid the 11 September plot but for the fact an FBI request to search his computer and other effects was turned down in an act of bureaucratic short-sightedness.

Andrew Gumbel