May 4, 2006, 9:45 P.M.
A Fate Worse Than Death: On May 3, 2006 a jury in the federal trial of Zacarias Moussaoui sentenced the convicted terrorist conspirator to life in prison, declining the opportunity to sentence him to death for his complicity on the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Moussaoui immediately declared that he was the winner, and the U.S. was the loser.
Before his capture, imprisonment, trial and conviction, Zacarias Moussaoui was a second rate terrorist whom his al Qaeda brethren did not even have enough respect for or trust in to allow him to kill himself for the cause. During the course of his trial, he became a potential public relations tool of al Qaeda, and the very real specter of his martyrdom loomed over the trial. By sentencing him to life in prison, rather than to death, the jury in this case relegated Moussaoui to obscurity, a fate worse than death for him.
This decision is the culmination of a 4 ½ year legal battle. Last month Moussaoui was convicted by the same jury on federal charges stemming from his terrorist activities, and his involvement in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Following the conviction, the jury determined that Moussaoui was eligible for the death penalty and this final phase of the trial resulted in a determination that Moussaoui should not be put to death, but that he should spend the rest of his life in a maximum security prison.
Judge Leonie M. Brinkema sentenced Moussaoui, consistent with the jury’s verdict. Under the federal death penalty law, Judge Brinkema was obliged to impose the sentence chosen by the jury. Moussaoui was permitted to speak, once again, at that proceeding. The vile rhetoric he spewed forth against the U.S. was the last we will hear from Moussaoui. As Judge Brinkema said, he will “die with a whimper.” As a result of this verdict he will live out the rest of his life in virtual solitary confinement at a Colorado high security prison known as “supermax”, and his final vitriolic diatribe should be behind us. By contrast, had Moussaoui been sentenced to death, his voice would be heard well into the future while his numerous appeals were heard and his case wound its way through the federal courts.
Carrie Lemark, a relative of a 9/11 victim, called Moussaoui a terrorist wannabe. She said, in an interview aired on CNN, that a death sentence would have given Moussaoui legitimacy. I agree that, although the concept of martyrdom was apparently not a consideration on the part of the jury, had he been sentenced to death, Moussaoui’s dreams of being a real factor in the anti-American activities of Islamist extremists would have been realized.
Upon hearing the verdict, and after the judge and the jury left the courtroom, Moussaoui thrust his fists in the air and shouted: "America, you lost, you lost! Novak, I won!" The Mr. Novak to whom he is referring is David J. Novak, one of the three prosecutors who argued the government's case. Prosecutors, defense lawyers and observers seemed to agree that the larger message to the world was, as stated by Anne Chapman, defense lawyer for Moussaoui, “ he got a fair trial.” Chapmen and the other defense lawyers representing Moussaoui were appointed by the court to protect his constitutional rights, but they had little contact and apparently no interaction with their client.
Some members of 9/11 victim families were pleased with the verdict and the fact that Moussaoui will remain in virtual solitary confinement for the rest of his life. Some naturally had hoped for his death. Given his minimal role in the 9/11 conspiracy, and given other mitigating factors (including the fact that he was in jail on 9/11), the jury verdict will not offer vengeance to those who justifiably seek it ( like former NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who said that he felt that the appropriate penalty should have been death). It will, however send a clear message to the world that our system of justice is a system of laws and of reason, and that even the most horrific acts will be dealt with within that system.
Everyone involved in this process did a terrific job under extremely difficult circumstances and we should all be proud of the way the system worked in this case. The real villains of 9/11 are out of reach. Our government has been unable to locate and capture the planners, like Osama bin Laden, and the actual pilots who carried out the attacks are already dead. The natural tendency under the circumstances is to aggressively pursue the person who we can identify with the tragedy, and whose face is the only face we can put on the events of that day. Instead of succumbing to the natural tendency to want to take out all of our anger and frustration on the one person we can get our hands on, we have proven to the world that we can objectively protect the rights of accused persons, follow our own laws, and can remain true to the principals of liberty, freedom and the rule of law even under the most extreme conditions.
It would be easy to justify killing someone like Moussaoui. The much harder course was to objectively evaluate the evidence as this jury obviously did in this case. This case should, and will, stand as a testament to our criminal justice system and at some point, after spending 23 hours per day in a cell, with little or no contact with other humans, Mr. Moussaoui may begin to reconsider his proclamation of victory.