By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/3/2006 7:00:33 PM ET 2006-05-03T23:00:33

The choice for the jury could not have been more stark: the prosecutors said the death penalty would be a righteous punishment for the worst crime in U.S. history. But at least some of the jurors apparently found his that role in the 9/11 attacks was so limited it didn't justify the death penalty.

After listening to more than six weeks of emotional testimony about the horrors of 9/11, jurors recommended that Moussaoui be locked up to spend the rest of his life in a maximum security prison, despite finding that the killings on 9/11 were indiscriminate and planned well in advance.

His court-appointed lawyers said it was the right punishment for someone they described as an al-Qaida wanna-be.

"It's obvious that they thought that his knowledge of 9/11, his role in 9/11, was not very great," said defense attorney Gerald Zerkin after the verdict.

It was not the verdict the Justice Department worked more than four years to achieve:

"In our system of justice, it only takes on juror to oppose or to object to the imposition of the death penalty," says U.S. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. "And we respect that. And we accept that. But accountability for the crimes committed has been achieved."

After the verdict was read, Moussaid said in court, "America, you lost. I won," and clapped his hands twice.

The jury's exact vote was not disclosed, but three jurors found that Moussaoui's role in the 9/11 operation was minor, and three said he had only limited knowledge of the suicide hijacking attack plans.

More than 50 survivors of the attacks and family members of those who died testified during the trial, most of them for the government. But they were by no means unanimous on how Moussaoui should be punished. Many said they were relieved by the verdict.

"If we're going to blame Zacarias Moussaoui, he isn't the real problem," said Carie Lemack, the daughter of a 9/11 victim. "The real problem are the terrorists who do want to kill us, like Osama bin Laden, who is still not captured."

"If he'd gotten death, it would have meant instant appeal," said Christie Coombs, the widow of a 9/11 victim. "We would have had to go through this all over again. He's going to be sitting in prison, no chance for parole. As far as I'm concerned, that's exactly where he belongs."

But New York City's former mayor said he would have preferred a different verdict.

"Yes, I'm disappointed," said Rudolph Giuliani. "I believe that the death penalty was appropriate in this case, and should have been applied."

Late Wednesday, President Bush broke his long silence on the case.

"They spared his life, which is something that he, evidently, wasn't willing to do for innocent American citizens," said the president.

The formal sentencing will come Thursday morning, but the judge must follow the jury's recommendation of life in prison.

He will almost certainly be incarcerated at the federal Supermax prison in Colorado, where would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid is held, along with Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph. But he would see little of them or anyone else and would be in strict solitary confinement.

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