- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

Convicted terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui was spared death yesterday by a federal grand jury that recommended the September 11 hijacking conspirator should spend the rest of his life in prison rather than be executed.

The verdict in U.S. District Court in Alexandria draws to a close more than four years of wrangling that has defined the case of the only person criminally charged in the United States with participating in the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Moussaoui, who proudly proclaimed his support for al Qaeda during the trial, was triumphant after the jury’s decision was announced.

“America, you lost … I won,” Moussaoui shouted as he was led away from the courtroom.

Reacting to the verdict, President Bush noted that Moussaoui “openly rejoiced” at the deaths of thousands in the hijacking attacks and said the terrorist’s life sentence “represents the end of this case, but not an end to the fight against terror.”

Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Mr. Bush noted that the Virginia jury spared Moussaoui’s life, “something that he evidently wasn’t willing to do for innocent American citizens.”

A jury of nine men and three women was not unanimous in favor of death for Moussaoui, 37, who was eligible based on three counts — committing acts of terrorism, destroying aircraft and using a weapon of mass destruction.

U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty, the lead prosecutor in the case, said, “The jury has spoken, and we thank them for their service.”

But Mr. McNulty stressed that Moussaoui lied to law-enforcement authorities upon his arrest shortly before the September 11 attacks.

“This lie was a critical moment in the conspiracy and allowed his fellow terrorists to carry out their plans,” Mr. McNulty said.

Much of the death-penalty trial centered on the prosecution’s effort to convince the jury that Moussaoui had been in a position to prevent the attacks and was, as a result, responsible for those who died.

As is custom, the number of jurors who opposed a death sentence was concealed, although a court spokesman said the jury unanimously found that Moussaoui “knowingly created grave risk of death to one or more” people.

The verdict drew a range of reactions. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, said he “would have liked to have seen the death penalty,” but could understand how the jury settled for life in prison.

“It’s hard for jurors I think sometimes to put someone to the maximum penalty of death for conspiracy,” Mr. Biden told MSNBC, although he added that a life sentence alongside a group of “red-blooded” American criminals would be a harsh existence for Moussaoui.

“I think that boy’s going to have what we Catholics call an epiphany,” Mr. Biden said.

Several relatives of September 11 victims said justice was done. Rosemary Dillard, whose husband died when his plane crashed into the Pentagon, said the verdict “shows the world we’re not going to stand for terrorists to come to our country and be let loose.”

Abraham Scott, whose wife died in the Pentagon, said he would have told her, “Baby, at least one perpetrator has been brought to justice.”

Carie LeMack, whose mother died on American Airlines Flight 11, which slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, said her mother did not believe in the death penalty. She said Moussaoui was “a wannabe who deserves to rot in jail.”

Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International, said his organization was “heartened” by the decision not to give Moussaoui death. He noted the trial was “problematic from the beginning” and said the “majority of the jurors recognized Mr. Moussaoui’s mental state.”

Moussaoui, who was indicted in December 2001, became known early in the case for his raving courtroom rants and shifting testimony. He often spoke aggressively of his membership in al Qaeda but, at first, adamantly denied involvement in the September 11 plot.

He was arrested in August 2001 when the staff at a Minnesota flight school alerted the FBI that he had paid for flight lessons mainly in cash and asked about the amount of fuel carried in a Boeing 747 and how much damage it would cause if it hit something.

In April 2005, Moussaoui pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring with al Qaeda in the attacks. At the time, he denied being a part of the initial hijacking plot, saying he had, in fact, been in training for a second wave of hijacked airplanes to slam into U.S. targets. In his plea, he admitted knowing that the 19 al Qaeda hijackers were going to fly aircraft into U.S. buildings.

However, Moussaoui’s story changed again during the initial phase of the penalty trial, when he announced that he had indeed played an active role in the September 11 hijacking conspiracy and had been scheduled to fly an airplane into the White House.

In another twist, senior al Qaeda officials questioned by U.S. authorities in prison denied that Moussaoui was part of the September 11 plot, according to the final report issued in 2004 by the independent commission that investigated the attacks.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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