Life sentence persuades Moussaoui too late that American juries can be fair
ALEXANDRIA, Va. ” Stunned that he was sentenced to life in prison rather than execution, Zacarias Moussaoui now believes he could get a fair trial from an American jury. Too late, the judge says.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema quickly rejected a motion the confessed al-Qaida conspirator filed Monday to withdraw his guilty plea and get a new trial.
In his motion, Moussaoui said he lied on the witness stand March 27 when he reversed four years of denials and claimed he was to have hijacked a fifth jetliner on Sept. 11, 2001, and crashed it into the White House, “even though I knew that was a complete fabrication.”
The 37-year-old Frenchman blamed his behavior on the effects of solitary confinement, his inability to get a Muslim lawyer and his misunderstanding of the U.S. justice system.
Moussaoui said he was “extremely surprised” by his life sentence by a federal court jury last week.
“I had thought I would be sentenced to death based on the emotions and anger toward me for the deaths on Sept. 11,” he explained in an affidavit. “But after reviewing the jury verdict and reading how the jurors set aside their emotions and disgust for me and focused on the law and the evidence … I now see that it is possible that I can receive a fair trial even with Americans as jurors.”
After seven days of deliberation, the jury of nine men and three women on Wednesday rebuffed the government’s appeal for the death penalty for Moussaoui, the only person charged in this country in the 9/11 suicide hijackings of four commercial jetliners that killed nearly 3,000 people.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema gave Moussaoui six life sentences, to run as two consecutive life terms in the federal supermax prison at Florence, Colo.
At sentencing, Brinkema told him he could not appeal the conviction he got when he pleaded guilty in April 2005. “You waived that right,” she said. She said Moussaoui could appeal the life term but “I believe it would be an act of futility.”
On Monday, Brinkema said federal rules prohibit withdrawing a guilty plea after sentencing so his request must be rejected.
In filing Moussaoui’s motion, his court-appointed lawyers told the court they knew that rule would doom the effort but filed it anyway because of their “problematic relationship with Moussaoui” and because new lawyers have yet to be appointed to replace them.
Brinkema had told the defense team, with whom Moussaoui never cooperated, that they finally could leave the case after filing any motions Moussaoui wanted.
Explaining his twists and turns, Moussaoui wrote in the affidavit, “Solitary confinement made me hostile toward everyone, and I began taking extreme positions to fight the system.”
Moussaoui said that, coupled with his inability to get a Muslim lawyer, led him to distrust his lawyers when they told him he could be convicted of being an al-Qaida member but acquitted of involvement in 9/11.
The motion said Moussaoui told his lawyers he wanted to withdraw his guilty plea because when he entered it his “understanding of the American legal system was completely flawed.”
Moussaoui wrote that he pleaded guilty because he mistakenly thought the Supreme Court would immediately review his objection to being denied the opportunity to call captured enemy combatant witnesses to buttress his claim of not being involved in the 9/11 plot.
An appeals court agreed with the government that national security would be at risk if captured operatives like 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed testified or were even questioned by Moussaoui’s lawyers. Instead, statements taken from their interrogations were read to the jury.
Mohammed’s statements said Moussaoui was never considered for the 9/11 plot, only a later attack.
Moussaoui’s shocking testimony that he was to crash a 747 jetliner into the White House on 9/11 revived the government’s flagging case in the first part of the sentencing trial. Previously, he had claimed he had nothing to do with 9/11, but rather was to fly the 747 into the White House later if the United States refused to release a radical Egyptian sheik serving life for terrorist acts.
On April 3, the jury found Moussaoui eligible for the death penalty. It apparently accepted prosecutors’ arguments that by withholding information from federal agents who arrested him on Aug. 16, 2001, he bore responsibility for at least one death on 9/11 by preventing the agents from identifying and stopping some hijackers.
Nevertheless, the same jury was unable to unanimously find that Moussaoui, who was in jail on 9/11, deserved execution. Three jurors wrote on the verdict form that they doubted he knew much about the 9/11 plot.
Moussaoui’s lawyers made clear to the jury they thought he was lying to achieve martyrdom through execution. Prosecutors even stipulated the government doubted his claim that shoe-bomber Richard Reid was to be part of his hijack team on 9/11.
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