Jurors weighing the fate of September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui yesterday were shown photographs of bodies burned inside the Pentagon and heard from two military officers who escaped the choking smoke and searing heat to safety.
Despite Judge Leonie Brinkema’s warning on Monday that too much emotional evidence imperils a death sentence on appeal, prosecutors showed the most gut-wrenching evidence yet in a trial studded with horrific images.
In the third day of testimony from relatives of September 11 victims, the jurors showed little emotion in the Alexandria courtroom. One man discreetly wiped his face with a tissue; on earlier days, as many as six of the 17 jurors and alternates did so.
After a three-minute bench conference to argue with the defense over what could be shown, prosecutors displayed several photos of charred bodies from the attack on the Pentagon.
Moments later, with judge and jury gone, Moussaoui defiantly shouted to spectators as he was led out: “Burn all Pentagon next time.”
Jurors also heard from Lt. Col. John Thurman, who was a major working on Army promotion policies on the Pentagon’s second floor on September 11, and Lt. Nancy McKeown, who was working on the first floor as chief weather forecaster for the Navy’s top brass.
The impact of hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 hitting the Pentagon sounded like a bomb to Col. Thurman and an earthquake to Lt. McKeown, and they both immediately dropped to the floor and rolled under their desks for cover as light fixtures, ceiling tiles, bookcases and file cabinets fell everywhere.
Both called out to co-workers and groped in the dark as the lights in their windowless offices went off and black smoke filled the air.
Lt. McKeown never heard any response from the two young sailors in her office; they died that day. Col. Thurman briefly reached two of the five co-workers in his office. One woman briefly held his belt, but neither could follow him crawling through debris. Three of the co-workers died.
At one point, both Col. Thurman and Lt. McKeown thought they would die.
Having crawled around her office without finding her aides, Lt. McKeown said she thought: “Is this how it’s supposed to end?”
“I got angry and called out again. My insides were on fire. It was hard to breathe,” she testified, but she pushed toward a glimmer of light and rescue.
After a medically induced coma and hospital stay, Col. Thurman said, “Today, I’m fine. … I feel incredibly lucky; nothing fell on me. But there’s guilt about getting the lucky break.”
Lt. McKeown broke down describing how she took the body of one aide, Petty Officer Edward T. Earhart, to his family for a funeral. “Before turning him over, I checked to see his buttons were buttoned and his medals were straight,” she said, weeping. “I stayed until he was buried, and I presented the flag” to his relatives.
Moussaoui pleaded guilty last year to conspiring with al Qaeda to fly planes into U.S. buildings. A week ago, the jurors ruled him eligible for the death penalty even though he was in jail in Minnesota on September 11.