Moussaoui’s fate in jury’s hands

McClatchy Newspapers

A jury began weighing the death-penalty case against Zacarias Moussaoui Wednesday after prosecutors blamed his lies for contributing to the Sept. 11 carnage, and a defense lawyer denied he was even part of the operation.

The all-white jury of nine men and three women must sort out sharply conflicting scenarios about what would have happened if Moussaoui had truthfully answered federal agents’ questions when he was arrested in Minnesota 26 days before the suicide hijackings.

During emotional closing arguments, prosecutor David Raskin told jurors that the confessed terrorist conspirator should be executed for "concealing the worst attacks in this country’s history _ just like al Qaeda taught him to do."

If he had told the truth, Raskin said, "the leadership of this country would have turned everybody loose to track the defendant’s al Qaeda brothers here in the United States."

But defense lawyer Edward MacMahon contended that Moussaoui knew too little about the Sept. 11 plot to have helped blundering U.S. counter-terrorism agencies thwart the suicide hijackings. He accused Moussaoui, his client, of spewing "a plethora of lies," such as his "fanciful" testimony Monday that he was planning to fly a fifth plane into the White House on Sept. 11.

"He’s manipulative . . . and now you’re the target of his manipulation," MacMahon told jurors. "He’s now trying to write a role for himself in history, when the truth is, he’s an al Qaeda hanger-on that they were trying to get rid of."

Moussaoui sat quietly during the arguments, occasionally smiling as MacMahon implied _ without saying it directly _ that he might be seeking to die a martyr.

The closing arguments capped a roller-coaster trial in the only U.S. criminal prosecution to stem from the suicide hijackings. During the three-week trial, prosecutors saw their case nearly ruined by a government lawyer’s improper coaching of witnesses and then bolstered when Moussaoui testified Monday _ over his lawyers’ protests _ that he was part of the Sept. 11 operation.

To find Moussaoui eligible for the first death sentence ever imposed at the federal courthouse in this Washington suburb, the jury must conclude his lies prevented the government from saving at least one of the nearly 3,000 Sept. 11 fatality victims.

If he is found eligible for a death penalty on any of three capital conspiracy counts, the trial will move to a second phase in which jurors will weigh aggravating and mitigating factors in deciding whether he should be given a lethal injection. If he is spared the death penalty, he will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.

In their last pitch to jurors, prosecutors embraced Moussaoui’s testimony that he was part of the Sept. 11 plot.

"The evidence demonstrates that . . . he was actually going to fly that plane into the White House," prosecutor David Novak said. "If he’s not part of this plot, why did they rush him into training?"

But MacMahon characterized Moussaoui’s testimony as "a tall tale . . . a whopper, even for a convicted felon, an al Qaeda member who is at war."

Noting that prosecutors’ case is built on Moussaoui’s alleged lies, he said, "you expect them to say he’ll cut down a cherry tree because he can’t tell a lie now."

Citing Moussaoui’s poor performance in flight schools in Oklahoma and Minnesota, MacMahon asked jurors: "Do you think Moussaoui could actually have flown a jet?"

Because Moussaoui has admitted that he lied so the suicide hijackings could go forward _ one threshold factor needed for a death sentence _ the jury is likely to focus on whether his cooperation would have saved lives.

Raskin pointed to testimony from a former FBI agent that the bureau could have traced 11 of the 19 hijackers if Moussaoui had told Minneapolis Agent Harry Samit that he was part of a plot to crash planes into buildings. He said the Federal Aviation Administration would then have put their names _ including three of the Sept. 11 pilots _ on a "no fly" list to prevent them from boarding planes.

But MacMahon called that "hopeful speculation." He cited repeated foul-ups in which the CIA and FBI failed to track two hijackers known to be in the country in early 2001 and failed to act on a Phoenix agent’s warning that suspicious Middle Easterners were taking flight lessons at U.S. schools.

He said Minneapolis Agent Samit’s work "was tremendous in this case. He figured it out, but he couldn’t get anybody to believe him."

Novak responded that all Moussaoui had to do was say, "I’m al Qaeda" and the wheels would have turned.

His voice dropping to a hushed tone, he implored jurors to hold accountable "the person who was brazen enough to look you in the face and tell you how grateful he was to participate in such a horrible, horrible crime."