Zacarias Moussaoui will be formally sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for his part in the September 11th terrorist attacks in America. A federal jury decided against his execution, letting sense and reason overcome a desire for revenge
Virginia jurors are not known for their leniency. Yet they have spared from the ultimate sanction the only person who has been convicted of direct responsibility for the worst-ever atrocity on American soil, and probably the only one who will be prosecuted. Unable to reach the unanimous verdict required for the death penalty, a jury in Alexandria decided after seven days of deliberation that Zacarias Moussaoui, a 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan origin, should be sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars for the attacks of September 11th 2001.
The prosecution had called for the death penalty, arguing that “there is no place on this good Earth” for him. The defence recommended “the long slow death of a common criminal” in prison, rather than martyrdom through execution. Mr Moussaoui himself had seemed to change his mind during the four long years of his trial, at first protesting fiercely that he had nothing to do with, and knew nothing about, the attacks, then suddenly claiming that he was a central figure in the plot. He had planned, he claimed, to fly a fifth suicide mission into the White House that day, and would certainly have done so had he not already been behind bars, arrested four weeks earlier on a minor immigration charge.
He continued to vacillate, screaming out “You’ll never get my blood: God curse you all!” when the jury first found him “eligible to be executed” on April 3rd. But during the final six weeks of hearings, he seemed intent on goading the jury into deciding that he should indeed be put to death, defiantly claiming that he had “no regret, no remorse”, and wishing that it could be September 11th every day. Then he changed tack again, telling the jury that life imprisonment would be “a greater punishment than being sentenced to death”, before crying out gleefully, “America, you lost!” when the jury at last handed down its verdict on May 3rd. He can still appeal his sentence.
Was the jury moved to clemency, as some believe, by descriptions of Mr Moussaoui’s wretched poverty-stricken childhood in France, before he became a fanatical Muslim extremist in London in the 1990s? Did they believe the defence argument that, far from having a star role in the September 11th tragedy, he was in fact a bungling fringe player, a paranoid schizophrenic with grand delusions but little or no knowledge of the main plot? (The presiding judge, Leonie Brinkema, told trial lawyers in closed session that she herself did not believe Mr Moussaoui’s claim that he knew details of the plot in advance.) Were some jurors possibly even influenced by the knowledge that the Supreme Court is currently considering whether lethal injections—the method of execution used by 37 American states as well as the federal government—should be deemed cruel and unusual punishment and, as such, unconstitutional?
Some or all of these factors may have come into play. Three jurors certainly felt that Mr Moussaoui’s knowledge of the plot was scanty. Another three said that if he was involved in the attacks, his role was a minor one. Many of the victims’ families were bitterly disappointed with the verdict. That was only to be expected.
During the last weeks of the sentencing trial, several jury members broke down as they heard the harrowing descriptions of shattered lives. For the first time, the cockpit recording of passengers struggling to take control of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field, was played in public. Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York at the time, described seeing a man clutching a briefcase as he jumped from one of the burning twin towers. A woman tried to hold down her skirt in a last desperate attempt to protect her modesty. Two others were clasping hands as they plunged 1,000 feet to their deaths.
The evidence was both gruelling and horrifying. But in the end, the jury—and perhaps most Americans too—appears to have wanted to deprive the man who revelled in all this of his moment of martyr’s glory. They may also have wanted to show America’s justice system at its best.
Especial: 11-S. Operación global contra el terrorismo: El análisis de los profesionales