TOPICS > Politics

Moussaoui Sentenced to Life in Prison, Spared Death Penalty

May 3, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on today’s verdict, we are joined by Neil Lewis, who has been covering the Moussaoui trial for the New York Times, and by Joshua Berman, former federal prosecutor in New York and Washington. He worked on the government’s joint terrorism task force, which prosecuted the al-Qaida-linked terrorists charged in the Africa embassy bombing cases.

Welcome to you, both.

Neil Lewis, first of all, in the courtroom today, what was the reaction when the jurors’ verdict was read out?

NEIL LEWIS, New York Times: I think most people were quite surprised, I would say even stunned. I would say Moussaoui himself was surprised and stunned. When the jurors…

MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead. We can hear you.

NEIL LEWIS: Oh, I’m sorry. I heard something.

The scene in the courtroom

Neil Lewis
The New York Times
[W]hen the jury forewoman gave Judge Leonie Brinkema the form, and she read that he was not to be executed, he seemed stunned and numb by it all.

When the jurors first came in, Moussaoui engaged in, as he often does, some facial clowning at them, as if he didn't care, dismissing them. But when the jury forewoman gave Judge Leonie Brinkema the form, and she read that he was not to be executed, he seemed stunned and numb by it all. Several minutes later afterwards, when he left, he raised his fists in kind of a victory gesture and said, "America, you lose, and I won."

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Neil, explain also -- the spokesman who came and read it outside the courtroom at the same time said this does not mean that they were unanimous in favor of life in prison. Can you explain that, the ground rules here?

NEIL LEWIS: I'm sorry, Margaret, again, if you would, please?

MARGARET WARNER: I'll try one more -- the spokesman who read the verdict said it doesn't mean they were unanimous in favor of life in prison. Can you explain that?

NEIL LEWIS: Well, I'm not exactly sure I agree with it. I mean, under the federal death penalty law, in this second phase, the jury has a very simple one or two choice, a or b, that he is to be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison with no possibility of release. And they were all aware of that.

As to the surprise, there are some hints in the jury verdict form as to what factors they relied on to decide to spare his life, because they were to weigh aggravating factors, which were the deaths and destruction of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, against mitigating factors put forward by his court-appointed lawyers.

And nine jurors in two cases found credibility in the mitigating factor of Moussaoui's terrible childhood in France, being brought up in orphanages, and the cruelty of his abusive father.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me bring in Joshua Berman here.

When you looked at this -- essentially, it was a score card, where they voted on the 10 prosecution factors and the 23 defense factors, I think -- what does it in balance say to you tipped the scales here?

JOSHUA BERMAN, Former Federal Prosecutor: Well, it says several things. One, it says they weren't in agreement on very much and also that the mental state and his upbringing was a critical factor.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what were the charges, though, that the prosecution failed to persuade this jury of, at least unanimously?

Why not a death sentence?

Joshua Berman
Former Federal Prosecutor
Interestingly, they did find that he had caused mayhem, and destruction, and buildings to come down, but not the deaths of the 3,000. And that was somewhat telling... they wondered, at least one, if not more folks wondered: Did he cause this?

JOSHUA BERMAN: Well, it appears that, on the aggravating side of the ledger, where there were 10 factors that had to be found, or 10 factors that were considered, they did not find unanimously that he had intended and, in fact, caused the death of 3,000 people.

Interestingly, they did find that he had caused mayhem, and destruction, and buildings to come down, but not the deaths of the 3,000. And that was somewhat telling. I think it shed some light onto what they were thinking, that they wondered, at least one, if not more folks wondered: Did he cause this?

MARGARET WARNER: And, of course, the FBI had said, because -- or rather the government had said, because he lied to the FBI about why he was here and what he was up to, that, in a sort of chain reaction, had made it impossible for the government to respond.

JOSHUA BERMAN: That's right. And think about that: What the government ultimately argued was a lie should be punished by death, and that's highly unusual in our system and virtually unheard of.

I mean, even in cases such as the embassy bombing cases from East Africa, which were tried several years back up in New York, those were folks who drove the bombs and were very involved in the planning and financing. Even they weren't executed.

MARGARET WARNER: Neil, back to you, I hope you can hear me. The jury also wrote in a mitigating factor, did they not, at least some of the jurors, that the prosecution had -- I mean, the defense hadn't really presented, but they decided to add. What was that?

NEIL LEWIS: Yes, three of them -- I'm sorry, I'll have to get it for you -- but three of them wrote in their own mitigating factor that he had limited knowledge of the attacks. That is to say, three of the jurors didn't believe fully the government's case that Moussaoui was fully aware of al-Qaida plans to fly planes into building and willfully concealed this.

And, as Josh said, this is part of the syllogism here that he knew of the plans for attack, he concealed them, and this prevented the government from foiling them.

Now, what made the decision today so stunning, I should want to say, is that, under the federal death penalty law, it's a two-phase proceeding. In the first phase, this very same jury found unanimously that Moussaoui was responsible for the deaths on 9/11, for some of the deaths on 9/11, even though he was in jail at the time, as Josh pointed out.

The second phase, in which they were in for the last few weeks, was supposed to be only a weighing of these aggravating factors against these mitigating factors. Now, the aggravating factors were shown by the government through a couple of weeks of emotionally searing testimony of victims and surviving family members, and it was thought to be so powerful that it was an insurmountable obstacle, but therein lay the surprise.

Moussaoui'r upbringing a factor

MARGARET WARNER: There were also, Josh Berman, mitigating factors that the defense had presented that we spent a lot of time discussing, that is having to do with what Moussaoui wanted or how credible he was, and those were not agreed with by the jury.

JOSHUA BERMAN: No. Interestingly, the martyr factor, which was discussed a great deal in the courtroom and outside the courtroom, doesn't seem to have played in to their decision. They didn't come out and say, "We were worried about him becoming a martyr, and thus that's the reason we didn't choose to find for the death penalty."

Instead, as Neil said, they looked at his upbringing, the orphanage situation. But at the end of the day...

MARGARET WARNER: And the abuse of his father.

JOSHUA BERMAN: And the abusive father, absolutely.

At the end of the day, though, while it was somewhat of an academic exercise in phase one of this trial -- okay, should we get to phase two, were the certain technical elements made and proven by the government?

In phase two, they had to sit in that room and look each other in the eye and say: A lie told by a man who had a bad upbringing, to which at least nine of them agreed, and who he may or may not have been a real player -- he may have wanted to be real player, but he was really just a bit player -- a lie leads to death. And that was a tough lever for this jury to pull.

Possible appeals

MARGARET WARNER: And, Josh Berman, since the defense won this sentencing phase, is an appeal off the table?

JOSHUA BERMAN: Yes. I mean, this is not going to be appealed. First off, if you're thinking of the defense appealing phase one, why bother? The best thing that could happen...

MARGARET WARNER: You mean because he was always going to get at least life in prison, since he had admitted to the actual details of the crime?

JOSHUA BERMAN: Exactly. He's gotten the best he could get, from that perspective. The government isn't in a position to appeal a decision like this, and tomorrow morning it's expected that Judge Brinkema does what she has to do, which is find for a sentence of life in prison.

MARGARET WARNER: This is binding on the jury. All right, Josh Berman and Neil Lewis, thank you both.

JOSHUA BERMAN: Thank you.

NEIL LEWIS: Thank you, Margaret.