ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- The jury in the Zacarias Moussaoui trial began deliberating yesterday on whether he is eligible for the death penalty because he didn't tell the FBI what he knew of the Sept. 11 terrorist plot.
Prosecutors argued that his silence kept the plot under wraps and thus allowed it to succeed. Defense attorneys said a dysfunctional federal law enforcement system wouldn't have stopped the hijackers anyway.
Both sides agreed that Moussaoui is a liar and a manipulator, but they disagreed on the points he might have lied about.
Prosecutors said he lied to FBI agents when he was arrested 25 days before terrorists hijacked four passenger jets. Two crashed into the World Trade Center towers, another hit the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed in a Pennsylvania field.
Defense lawyers said he has lied at his trial to inflate his importance in the plot, "trying to write a role in history for himself when the truth is he's just an al-Qaida hanger-on."
Prosecutors said they believed Moussaoui when he testified that he was in the United States to crash pilot a fifth plane into the White House on the morning of Sept 11. He lied, they said, when he tried to deceive FBI agents upon his arrest.
Defense lawyers took an untraditional tack in their closing arguments. Faced with a client they could not control, they repeatedly castigated him as untrustworthy, someone who was trying to manipulate the jury. And they all but accused Moussaoui, who in the past had claimed he was to be part of a second wave of attacks, of committing perjury when he testified about being the fifth Sept. 11 pilot.
The 37-year-old Frenchman was apprehended on visa violations while taking jet simulator lessons in Minnesota.
Seventeen potential jurors heard the evidence. Judge Leonie M. Brinkema randomly chose 12 of them -- nine men and three women -- as the jury Wednesday. The five others will be alternates.
Yesterday's court session concluded the first phase of the sentencing trial. Moussaoui pleaded guilty to two capital murders in April.
The jury must decide:
Whether Moussaoui lied to FBI agents in Minnesota on Aug. 16 and 17, 2001, when he claimed that he was a tourist.
Whether, if he did lie, he was "contemplating" that someone would die as a result.
Whether his lies were responsible for any of the 2,792 deaths on Sept. 11.
Any decision that he lied -- and that people died because of his lies -- must be unanimous.
If all 12 jury members agree with the prosecution that Moussaoui is eligible for the death penalty, the sentencing trial will move into a second phase.
There, the two sides would spend several weeks presenting evidence, with the prosecution trying to persuade the jury to give him the death penalty and the defense pushing for life in prison with no parole. Those are the only two options.
If any juror does not agree that he is eligible for the death penalty, the case will end and Moussaoui will automatically be sentenced to life without parole.
"I will sentence the defendant upon your conclusions," the judge said.
The jury deliberated about 90 minutes late yesterday afternoon and is to return today.
Richard Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.