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Jury Rejects Execution for Moussaoui


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Zacharias Moussaoui will spend the rest of his life in prison. That was the verdict reached yesterday by a federal jury after weeks of deliberations.

The jury apparently agreed with many of the prosecution's key arguments, but ended up voting against the death penalty. NPR's Larry Abramson has this report.


Listen to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, and you might think his legal team won this case. McNulty pointed out that last month, the jury was unanimous in finding that Moussaoui was eligible for the death penalty because he lied to the FBI when he was arrested and withheld information that might have stopped the 9/11 attack.

Mr. PAUL McNULTY (Deputy Attorney General): And today, the jury decided unanimously--eight out of the factors unanimously decided regarding the responsibility in the actions of Zacharias Moussaoui.

ABRAMSON: And it's true. The jury only rejected two of the 10 so-called aggravating factors, which formed the prosecution's argument for executing Moussaoui. The jury has yet to explain why they nevertheless voted for life in prison, but the verdict form they submitted provides some clues.

Clue number one: on all three terror counts, the jury rejected the idea that Moussaoui committed the offense in an especially heinous or depraved manner. The judge instructed the jury that for this issue, they could only consider the actions of the defendant. She told them, you may not consider the manner in which any co-defendants committed the offenses. The jury may have concluded that Moussaoui could not be held responsible for deaths that he did not directly cause, no matter how horrible those deaths were.

Clue number two: the jury also rejected the prosecution's argument that Moussaoui's actions resulted in the deaths of approximately 3,000 people.

Clue number three: three jurors inserted a special mitigating factor, which they felt supported life in prison. Printed by hand on the form, the jury wrote that Zacharias Moussaoui had limited knowledge of the 9/11 attack plans.

David Brock is a death penalty expert with the Capital Defense Network, and he says all this information points to something that he sees quite often in these cases.

Mr. DAVID BROCK (Death Penalty Expert, Capital Defense Network): Namely that a small group of jurors--three, four, five--dig their heels in on reasons to vote for life and the rest of the jury comes around.

ABRAMSON: In many ways, the defense is very lucky, because many of their key arguments completely flopped with the jury. Not a single juror was convinced that Moussaoui's life should be spared because he is schizophrenic. Not a single juror bought the idea that Moussaoui's death would turn him into a martyr. Only a few agreed that he would not present a risk if sentenced to maximum security confinement, another defense argument.

Defense Attorney Edward MacMahon did not attempt to explain his victory yesterday, but he gave special credit to the many victims' families who testified as defense witnesses.

Mr. EDWARD MacMAHON (Defense Attorney, Zacharias Moussaoui Case): This testimony demonstrated resilience in the possibility of renewal. As we have said many times, none of these witnesses testified for Moussaoui. They all spoke their minds, as citizens of a free nation, uncowed(ph) by acts of terror.

ABRAMSON: While government officials refrain from criticizing the verdict, it is a clear defeat for a Justice Department that spent vast sums in an effort to secure the death penalty over the last four years.

Capital Defense lawyers, like David Brock of the Capital Defense Network, were relieved because they fear the precedent this case could have set.

Mr. BROCK: After all, this was the only case in modern history in the United States where the death penalty was sought to be imposed for someone's failure to incriminate himself while being interrogated by the police. That's really what this boiled down to.

ABRAMSON: The jury's decision is final, but the judge will officially sentence Moussaoui to life in prison without the possibility of parole this morning. He's expected to be transferred to a maximum security facility, possibly the penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, home to several other convicted terrorists. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.