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Sentencing Trial Opens for Moussaoui

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. The sentencing trial for Zaccarias Moussaoui got under way today with final jury selection and the opening statements by the prosecution and defense. Moussaoui has pleaded guilty to conspiring with al-Qaida to hijack planes and fly them into American buildings. But he has said he was supposed to be part of a later round of attacks, not those carried out on 9/11.

The jury will decide between life in prison and the death penalty. NPR's Laura Sullivan is at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. And Laura, tell us first about the opening statement from the prosecutor. What did the government say that Zaccarias Moussaoui did to deserve the death penalty?

LAURA SULLIVAN, reporting,

Well, the prosecutor said that he lied. And when he lied he caused people to die. They essentially described him as sort of a magic key, and had Moussaoui told the truth the plot would have unraveled. They said, you know, when Moussaoui was, talked with investigators, he said that he was a tourist, that he owned a fictitious business, and none of that was true.

In fact, the prosecutors argued that he knew about the plot, that he was in the thick of it and that at some point he was going to fly a plane into the White House. And if they had had that knowledge they would have tightened the FAA rules, they would've put him and the 19 hijackers on a no-fly list, and they would've been able to link him to all the members of the plot. The prosecutor said, had Moussaoui told the truth every available agent in the FBI would've been put on the case.

BLOCK: And it's worth remembering that Zaccarias Moussaoui was in custody before the 9/11 attacks.

SULLIVAN: Yes he was. And when it comes to the FBI, the defense says absolutely no way. They painted the picture of an agency that was completely incompetent before the attacks, and that there's no way with 25 days by the time Zaccarias Moussaoui was put in custody that they would've been able to unravel the 9/11 plot.

You know, they said that they did nothing with the previous threats that had been foretold to them in the years building up to 9/11. And the defense pointed out that there were two al-Qaida, known al-Qaida members, in the United States that the FBI knew about for 18 months, and yet they did nothing to track them down or put them on a no-fly list.

BLOCK: Yeah, as we mentioned Zaccarias Moussaoui has denied that he participated in the planning of the 9/11 attacks. How did both sides use that in their opening statements today?

SULLIVAN: Well, it was interesting, because the prosecution's opening statements, they never even described Moussaoui's role. They were very vague. And the defense says, of course, that's because Moussaoui didn't have a role. They said that not only was Moussaoui not a part of the plot, but that he didn't know anything about it. They described him as isolated, totally useless. They said he couldn't fly at all despite all of his expensive lessons. They said he was obnoxious to everyone that he met. He made a scene in the local Mosque. He made a scene in an Oklahoma bank. One top al-Qaida operative described him as cuckoo in the head. The defense says he was so inconsequential to al-Qaida that they didn't even know that he was arrested until after 9/11.

BLOCK: Now, since Moussaoui pleaded guilty this trial has to do only with his punishment, whether he lives or dies. What does the prosecution have to prove to make him eligible to be executed?

SULLIVAN: They have to, they have to prove that Moussaoui withheld information that could have saved even one person's life on September 11th. The defense says, of course, that the government knew more than Moussaoui did based on the 9/11 commissions reports, based on a lot of ample evidence that's come to light since the attacks.

BLOCK: Zaccarias Moussaoui has been known in the past to disrupt court proceedings, how was he in court today?

SULLIVAN: Moussaoui has, you know, has always had a lot of outbursts and this is probably the quietest we've seen him in four years, since back when he first showed up in court and the judge wasn't even sure that he could speak English. But he had a little table set off to the side and a pen and a notepad, and for the most part he sat there just rubbing his beard and he looked almost riveted.

BLOCK: Laura thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

BLOCK: NPR's Laura Sullivan, who's covering the sentencing trial of Zaccarias Moussaoui at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sullivan
Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.