WASHINGTON -- Zacarias Moussaoui and nearly 500 potential jurors are set to gather in a Northern Virginia courtroom today, marking the start of the only trial in the United States of a person charged with direct involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Moussaoui, a 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent, has pleaded guilty to six counts of conspiracy in connection with the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington. As a result, the trial will be solely over whether he is executed by lethal injection or spends the remainder of his life in prison.
That Moussaoui is an adherent of al-Qaida, despises the United States and would be thrilled to fly an airplane into a building filled with American civilians is beyond dispute. He has proclaimed those views loudly in several court appearances. But he has also said that he was not part of the Sept. 11 plot and does not deserve or want to be executed.
Under federal law, violations that carry the death penalty require separate proceedings to determine first whether someone is guilty and then what the penalty should be. With his plea, the issues and arguments that would have been at the heart of any trial over his guilt will form the basis of the sentencing phase of the proceeding, which will resemble in almost every way an ordinary trial over guilt.
Moussaoui and his court-appointed lawyers, with whom he apparently does not communicate, have offered different principal defenses as to why he should not be executed. In motions before the court, the defense lawyers have indicated they will seek to present testimony from medical professionals that Moussaoui is mentally unstable.
Moussaoui has had several seemingly irrational outbursts in previous hearings that caused Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to revoke her permission for him to defend himself. She has, however, ruled him competent to stand trial and to enter his plea.
Moussaoui has asserted that he had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks. He was in jail at the time, having been arrested weeks before on suspicion of immigration violations when he was a student pilot in Minnesota. When he asserted in court that he was eager to be a suicide bomber, he said he was meant to be a part of a second wave of attacks by airplanes on public buildings.
"I came to the United States of America to be part, OK, of a conspiracy to use airplane as a weapon of mass destruction," he told Brinkema in April. "But this conspiracy was a different conspiracy than 9/11."
He said he was supposed to fly a plane into the White House if the United States refused to release from jail Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, a Muslim cleric serving a life sentence for planning to blow up New York landmarks in 1993.
Some Justice Department officials originally suggested that Moussaoui was meant to be the 20th hijacker and that had it not been for his arrest in Minnesota he would have been aboard the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, the only one of the four planes involved with four hijackers instead of five. But most officials dropped that speculation even before Moussaoui's guilty plea.
In making the case that Moussaoui deserves the death penalty, prosecutors said that it is indisputable that Moussaoui knew of the plans for the Sept. 11 attacks and concealed that knowledge from investigators after his arrest. Justice Department officials noted that in his guilty plea Moussaoui acknowledged in a statement that he had misled investigators when he told them that he had enrolled in flight school for the pleasure of flying, rather than training to be part of an al-Qaida program to fly planes into buildings.
A principal part of the strategy of the court-appointed defense lawyers is to challenge the government's claim that Moussaoui's silence contributed to the deaths of those on Sept. 11 because, they suggest, at the time of his arrest, the government knew more than he did about al-Qaida's plans.
Their filing said the government's case is "entirely speculative and patently hypothetical; that is, something that Moussaoui could have told them would have prevented the attacks."
The official commission that studied the attacks concluded that leaders of al-Qaida considered using Moussaoui as "a potential substitute pilot" on Sept. 11 because of friction among other plotters, but his arrest scuttled that possibility. The commission also speculated that al-Qaida leaders had contemplated using him as part of a "second wave" of attacks and that they spent at least $50,000 to finance his flight school training and other expenses in the United States after he entered the country in early 2001.
Whatever the dispute about Moussaoui's explicit connection to the Sept. 11 attacks, the government is making an effort to emphasize that aspect before the jury. Prosecutors will present testimony from more than 40 relatives of victims of the 2001 attacks and plan to display photographs of all the victims during the trial.
The sentencing trial will be divided into two phases. First, the jury will be asked to decide whether Moussaoui is eligible for the death penalty by virtue of having committed an act that directly resulted in the deaths of victims.
If the decision is unanimous, the next question for the jury is to consider whether there are aggravating factors, such as whether the crime resulted in multiple deaths and whether the deaths were cruel and the crime especially heinous.
At the same time, the jury would be required to consider mitigating factors like the defendant's mental health.
If jurors were unanimous in finding that any aggravating factors outweighed any mitigating factors they then would move to decide whether to recommend the death penalty. If the jury is unanimous in favor of the death penalty, the judge is obliged to impose that sentence.