Video: Moussaoui jury begins deliberations

updated 4/24/2006 5:49:19 PM ET 2006-04-24T21:49:19

Zacarias Moussaoui’s fate was placed Monday afternoon in the hands of a jury that will decide whether he is executed in connection with the deaths of Sept. 11, 2001.

Jurors deliberated for three hours before finishing for the day. They began deliberating at 2:26 p.m. ET after final pleadings from the prosecution to “put an end to his hatred and venom” by opting for execution, and from the defense to spare him the martyr’s death he seeks and send him to prison for life instead.

According to NBC News’ Pete Williams, the judge told the jury that if they did not unanimously decide on the death penalty for Moussaoui, his sentence would automatically be life in prison. A mistrial would not be an option, he added.

The jury decided in 15 hours of deliberations over four days earlier this month that Moussaoui, 37, the only man charged in this country in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was responsible for deaths that day even though he was in jail. That qualified him for the death penalty. The question now before jurors is whether he deserves it.

Moussaoui had been unrepentant throughout a legal drama that included a virtually unprecedented Internet-era multimedia presentation that recreated for the jury the last half-hour on Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11 as passengers overwhelmed hijackers, and gripping first-person accounts of suffering.

Moussaoui has publicly relished the results of the attacks, mocked victims and their families, insulted his lawyers and yet insisted he did not want to die. During a recess in closing arguments, Moussaoui said: “Our children will carry on the fight.”

As he left the courtroom, he raised his hands in the air, smiling, and clapped as if he’d finished watching a performance.

Judge commends both sides
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema commended both sides for their handling of the difficult case and singled out the burden of the defense lawyers in having to represent someone who rejected them at every turn. “There never has been a defendant as difficult as this one,” she said, “who did everything he could to undermine your efforts.”

After the jury left, defense lawyers tried once more to have the death penalty stricken from the case, based on their inability to put direct questions to witnesses held elsewhere as enemy combatants.

But Brinkema dismissed that motion, agreeing with the prosecution that the issue had already been decided by an appeals court.

Prosecutor David Raskin urged the jurors to reject defense arguments that Moussaoui is mentally ill and to brush off any hesitation that they would be giving him what he wants by deciding on execution. “He wants you to think Osama bin Laden will be mad at us,” Raskin said. “Do you think Osama bin Laden gives a damn about what happens here? ... That is a joke.”

Raskin said: “It is time to put an end to his hatred and venom.”

The prosecutor pointed out how Moussaoui rejoiced in the deadly outcome of the attacks. “The defendant rejoices in all that pain,” he said. “He loved it because he was responsible for it. He loved it because it meant to him, mission accomplished.”

Defense: Moussaoui wants death
Defense lawyer Gerald Zerkin countered that Moussaoui’s contempt for the victims and the trial “is proof that he wants you to sentence him to death. He is baiting you into it. He came to America to die in jihad and you are his last chance.”

Zerkin said the jury can instead “confine him to a miserable existence until he dies and give him not the death of a jihadist ... but the long slow death of a common criminal.”

Zerkin also asked jurors to keep an eye on history, noting that even in the Nuremberg trials after World War II, only 11 death sentences were handed out for “the worst atrocities in the history of man.”

He said Moussaoui is “a veritable caricature of an al-Qaida terrorist” and “the only al-Qaida operative inept enough to be captured before 9/11.”

“This is about history, it is about how our justice system responded to the worst terrorist attack on our soil,” Zerkin said.

'How many people have to die?'
During his presentation, prosecutor David Novak replayed some of the horrific photos and videos that jurors had seen during witness testimony, including a burned body in a wrecked Pentagon office and body parts at the base of the World Trade Center.

“If not this case, then when is a death sentence appropriate?” he asked. “How many people have to die?”

Moussaoui’s wishes are irrelevant, Novak told the jury. “Nothing in the jury instructions will tell you to try to figure out what the defendant wants and give him the opposite.”

The defense had presented evidence of Moussaoui’s shattering treatment as a child born in France of Moroccan descent, of his father’s and uncle’s violence in his home and of mental illness rampant in his family.

Raskin said none of that excused his conduct and he rejected the defense argument that Moussaoui is a schizophrenic.

“Just because we can’t comprehend this kind of evil, doesn’t mean he suffers a mental illness,” he said. “We will never understand evil like this.”

Although Moussaoui was in jail on Sept. 11, the jury ruled that lies he told federal agents when he was arrested in August 2001 on immigration violations allowed the plot to go forward.

Jurors brought to tears
Prosecutors presented testimony from dozens of victim-impact witnesses whose accounts often left jurors in tears. Emotions switched from sorrow to rage when prosecutors cross-examined Moussaoui, who mocked the victims’ testimony and took glee in the Sept. 11 aftermath.

Moussaoui had previously taken the stand and stunned the courtroom by claiming he was to have piloted a fifth plane on Sept. 11, after years of denying a role in the attacks.

Defense lawyers sought to blunt the victim-impact testimony by putting a dozen Sept. 11 family members on the stand in support of their case. The witnesses were barred from explicitly saying they favored life in prison, but got their point across by saying that they do not seek vengeance.

Much of the testimony also revolved around Moussaoui’s mental health. Experts hired by the defense diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic who suffers delusions, including his firmly held belief that President Bush will free him from prison.

Government-appointed experts say Moussaoui is not mentally ill and attribute his beliefs about Bush to religious zealotry.

NBC News’ Pete Williams contributed to this report.

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