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'The darkest day'
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 20 - 04 - 2006

The human cost and the lingering emotional impact of the 11 September terrorist attacks have been the focus of the final phase of the death penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, Tamam Ahmed Jama reports from Paris
After the prosecution rested its case with heart-rending testimonies by 11 September victims' families, Zacarias Moussaoui, who is facing execution in connection with the terrorist attacks, took the stand last week. He did so against the advice of his court-appointed lawyers and, while at the witness box, accused them of "criminal non-assistance", saying they were not doing enough for him. He said they failed to arrange that his trial be held at a venue further away from the Pentagon, which was affected by the attacks.
"You showed clearly to me that you didn't have my best interests at heart," he said.
Moussaoui also criticised the defence team's attempt to suggest that he is mentally ill.
"I thought your idea to portray me [as] crazy would never work," he said. He did, however, refute suggestions that Moussaoui has been deliberately undermining the efforts of his defence team in order to be executed. He said he did not want to die but wanted to "fight" his case all the way through. A self-confessed Al-Qaeda member who pleaded guilty last year to six counts of terrorist conspiracy, he was found eligible for the death penalty in the first phase of the sentencing trial last month. In this final phase trial, the jury will decide whether Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States in connection with the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, should be executed.
The prosecution's presentation was punctuated with heart-rending testimonies, pictures of charred bodies, desperate cries for help by trapped victims, bringing to life the horror of 11 September.
Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York -- who was among the first to arrive at the scene of the World Trade Center after the hijacked planes crashed into them and who earned national praise for the courage and leadership he demonstrated in handling the crisis -- was the prosecution's first witness. Giuliani described in court the horror of watching people jump from the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which were being consumed by fire before they eventually collapsed, in a desperate bid for survival.
"My eyes caught a man, it must have been the 100th or 101st or 102nd floor," Giuliani said. "I realised I was watching this man throwing himself out, feeling the flames and the smoke."
Among the people that Giuliani saw leaping from the flames and falling to their deaths were two people who seemed to be holding hands.
"Of the many memories of that day that stick in my mind, that is one that comes back to me every day," he said. Describing the scene after the twin towers collapsed, Giuliani talked about seeing parts of human bodies -- hands, legs -- scattered amid the debris.
The jury heard heartbreaking 911 calls made by people trapped in the World Trade Center before the twin towers collapsed. Among these was the voice of Melissa Doi, who was trapped on the 83rd floor of the south tower. The victim was heard saying: "the floor is completely engulfed, it is very, very hot. I am going to die, aren't I? I am going to die. I am going to die. It is so hot. I am burning up."
The jury also heard the only audible cockpit voice recording recovered from the four planes hijacked on 11 September. It documented the desperate struggle by passengers on board United Airlines Flight 93 as they tried to storm the cockpit to wrest control from hijackers before the plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania -- not far from Alexandria, Virginia, where Moussaoui's trial is taking place. Amid the frantic exchanges between the hijackers and the passengers, with hijackers ordering passengers to keep "it down" and "remain quiet", a voice is heard of someone saying three times: "I don't want to die." All 44 people on board -- 33 passengers, seven crew members and four hijackers -- died.
Dozens of members of the victims' families testified, relating the impact of the loss of their loved ones on their lives.
"The 2,972 people who lost their lives in the attacks are not just a number -- each victim left behind a mother, a father, a wife, a husband, a child and they continue to suffer as a result of their losses," Robert Turner, co-founder and associate director of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia School of Law, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The prosecution initially said that at least 40 members of the victims' families would testify. Some legal experts have questioned the appropriateness of having so many victims family members testify and making the nation relive the trauma of 11 September.
"It is entirely fitting that victim survivors be heard in the criminal justice system, but a criminal trial is not an occasion for national grief and mourning," David Bruck, a death penalty expert who heads the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse at Washington and Lee University, was quoted as saying in The Washington Post. "We need to separate national catharsis from the criminal justice system, otherwise we have the justice of the mob."
The presiding judge, Leonie Brinkema, also warned the prosecution not to rely too much on highly emotional testimony, which, if seen as overly prejudicial, can be grounds for overturning a death sentence on appeal. The prosecutors said the voices of the victims were central to this phase of the trial and pointed out that the 40 or so witnesses were chosen from a pool of several hundred people who expressed interest in testifying. The prosecution later said it scaled back some testimony.
In this phase of the death penalty trial, the jury has to weigh the evidence for aggravating and mitigating factors to arrive at a decision on Moussaoui's fate. If the 12-member jury reaches a unanimous decision in favour of execution, Brinkema will impose the death penalty. Otherwise Moussaoui will be sentenced to life in prison without a chance for parole.
The horror and the sheer destruction caused by the attacks compounded by Moussaoui's lack of remorse, could be a powerful aggravating factor that will likely make the jury more inclined to opt for his execution.
"If I were a betting man, and I hate to bet on people's lives, I'd say that it is more likely that they'll come back with the death penalty," Turner said. "Having said that, I hope that the jurors will weigh the evidence very carefully and guard against being swayed by emotions."
He said the fact that Moussaoui has been defiant in court, occasionally shouting out anti-American slogans and has said that he does not regret the attacks is likely to make him look undeserving of leniency in the eyes of the jury. But, Turner added, this does not mean that Moussaoui's execution is a foregone conclusion. If some of the jurors are convinced that he is actually mentally unstable, as the defence has argued, they will probably think that putting him to death is not an appropriate punishment -- despite how heinous the crime to which he confessed is.
"You punish people for doing something they know is wrong," Turner said. "There is little point in punishing someone who has no sense of right and wrong. Moussaoui is obviously not behaving in a way that serves his interests. So some jury members may think that he does not have the mental capacity to form rational judgement."
In his guilty plea last year, Moussaoui said that he was not part of the 11 September plot but was instead preparing for a separate terrorist scheme against targets in the US. In a dramatic turn in the first phase of his sentencing trial last month, he stunned the court by confessing to have been part of the 11 September plot. He said that he was supposed to fly a fifth hijacked plane into the White House on that day. This confession contracts testimony that Moussaoui stood by for years -- that he was not part of and had no prior knowledge of the 11 September attacks. He also confessed to a crucial part of the prosecutions case: that he deliberately lied to FBI agents when he was arrested three weeks before the attacks in order to conceal Al-Qaeda's plans so that the attacks could go forward.
Moussaoui, a 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent, was arrested in August 2001 after arousing suspicion in a flight school in Minnesota. He initially told federal agents that he was taking flying lessons for personal enjoyment. The prosecution has argued that he was responsible for the deaths in the 11 September attacks because, had he told FBI agents what he knew at the time of his arrest, the Al-Qaeda plot may have been foiled and the tragedy averted.
The jury is expected to begin deliberations this week. Execution or no execution, the outcome of Moussaoui's sentencing trial is expected to be controversial. Given that he is the only person charged in the US with the horrendous criminal acts of 11 September, the jury is under enormous pressure to vote for his execution. Prosecutor Robert Spencer, who said that 11 September 2001 was "the darkest day in recent American history", urged the jurors to opt for Moussaoui's death sentence.
But many Americans, including members of the victims' families, do not think he should be executed -- either because they are against the death penalty or because they fear that this will actually make him a martyr. Questions have also been raised about the possibility of Moussaoui's role being peripheral at best in Al-Qaeda's plans. He had been in custody for almost a month when the attacks took place and testimony obtained from Khaled Sheikh Mohamed, the presumed mastermind of 11 September who is in US custody in an undisclosed location, also disputed Moussaoui's role in the attacks. The defence has suggested that he is a fantasist and schizophrenic who dreams of an inflated role in history but had nothing to do with the attacks. Suggestions have also been made that the government, which feels the pressure of holding someone to account for what happened, might be so eager for Moussaoui's execution because he is the only one available on US soil in connection with 11 September. The 19 hijackers directly responsible for the carnage of that day died in the various crashes.
"Many people will be angry if they don't give him the death penalty and many will be angry if they give him the death penalty," Turner said. "The jurors need to set aside anger and emotions and focus on what they think is just and not what is going to please the mob on the street. People are outraged about what happened, but at the same time I think most Americans believe in justice and want to be fair. The death of Moussaoui will not reverse the tragedy of 11 September. There is no way you can bring back to life the nearly 3,000 victims of the attacks, and no way you can comfort their families and make up for their losses. So what is justice in this case? I think most Americans will struggle with this issue."

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