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2006-05-04

Jury Rejects Death Penalty for Moussaoui in Major Defeat for Bush Administration

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Zacarias Moussaoui–the only person charged in this country in connection to the 9/11 attacks–has been sentenced to life in jail without parole. The verdict marked a major blow the Bush administration who were seeking the death penalty. We play an excerpt of an interview with Moussaoui’s mother, Aicha, in the months after his arrest and we talk to Phyllis Rodriguez, who lost her son on Sept. 11th in the World Trade Center. [includes rush transcript]

Zacarias Moussaoui — the only person charged in this country in connection to the 9/11 attacks–was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Government prosecutors had attempted to convince the 12-person jury that Zacarias Moussaoui deserved to die for his connection to the Sept. 11th attacks even though he was already in jail at the time of the hijackings.

Moussaoui had been arrested in Minnesota in August 2001 after his flight school instructor reported him to the FBI. He was originally detained for immigration violations.

During the trial, federal prosecutors argued that he deserved to be executed because he did not tell investigators at the time of his arrest about the impending attack.

However the government failed to convince the jury even though Moussaoui proudly admitted he was a member of Al Qaeda and that he defended the Sept. 11th attacks.

Three jurors concluded Moussaoui had only limited knowledge of the Sept. 11th plot, and three described his role in the attacks as minor, if he had any role at all.

  • Carie Lemack, co-founder of the group Families of Sept. 11th. Her mother — Judy Larocque–was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11. She speaks outside the courthouse about the jury’s verdict.
  • Phyllis Rodriguez, her 31-year-old son, Gregory Rodriguez, died in the Sept. 11th attacks. He worked on the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center. She recently met with Zacarias Moussaoui’s mother, Aicha El Wafi. She joins us on the line from Westchester, New York.
  • Aicha El Wafi, Zacarias Moussaoui’s mother, interviewed November 2002.
  • Coleen Rowley, former FBI Special Agent turned whistleblower. She has accused FBI officials of hampering the investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui and ignoring critical warnings before the 9/11 attacks. She joins us on the line from Minnesota.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: After 41 hours of deliberations, the jury announced its decision on Wednesday.

EDWARD ADAMS: In the case of United States v. Zacarias Moussaoui, as to count one, conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries; and count three, conspiracy to destroy aircraft; and count four, conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, the jury has found the defendant should be sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of release.

AMY GOODMAN: That was court spokesperson, Edward Adams, speaking outside the federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. Government prosecutors had attempted to convince the 12-person jury that Zacarias Moussaoui deserved to die for his connection to the September 11th attacks, even though he was already in jail at the time of the hijackings. Moussaoui had been arrested in Minnesota in August 2001, after his flight school instructor reported him to the F.B.I. He was originally detained for immigration violations.

During the trial, federal prosecutors argued he deserved to be executed, because he did not tell investigators at the time of his arrest about the impending attack. However, the government failed to convince the jury, even though Moussaoui proudly admitted he was a member of al-Qaeda and that he defended the September 11th attacks. Three jurors concluded Moussaoui had only limited knowledge of the plot, and three described his role in the attacks as minor, if he had any role at all. Outside the courthouse, several people who lost loved ones on September 11th spoke about the jury’s verdict. This is Carie Lemack, co-founder of the group, Families of September 11th.

CARIE LEMACK: My mother, Judy Larocque, was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11, and we’re from Boston, and this is my first time at the Alexandria courthouse today. And I have to say I’m glad to see that this will be the last day that Mr. Moussaoui is in the headlines. He’s going to be in jail for the rest of his life, which is exactly what this man deserves.

He’s an al-Qaeda wannabe. And he does not deserve any credit for 9/11, because he was not part of it, and I am so glad the jury recognized that and realized that he just wanted to kill Americans, but he wasn’t even skilled enough to be able to do that.

This country needs to understand the real risks that we’re facing. We can’t even get our Congress people and our president to lock up nuclear material, even though terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, have said he wants to kill four million Americans. This country can’t screen all of the cargo on the planes that we fly on, that I flew on here today to be here. We have to look at the real problems in this country.

If we’re going to blame Zacarias Moussaoui — he’s not the real problem. The real problem are the terrorists who do want to kill us, like Osama bin Laden, who is still not captured. So I’m glad the jury looked at all the evidence and recognized that this man was an al-Qaeda wannabe who could never have put together the 9/11 attacks, the horrific attacks that killed so many people. I’m just glad to be an American today, because we finally have felt like justice has been done.

There were a lot of family members who wanted to see Zacarias Moussaoui die, but there are a lot of family members who did not. And the jury looked at the evidence and made their decisions, and I’m proud of them today, and I know my mom would be proud of them, too. She would prefer to see someone like this spend their time in jail and have to think about what he’s made the decisions in his life and what he’s chosen, because he was not capable of pulling off these horrific attacks. He’s a wannabe who deserves to rot in jail, and I’m just glad he got what he deserves today.

So, thank you, and thank you to the jurors who worked so hard and to the attorneys, who did the best they could with such a difficult client in such a difficult case for the prosecutors. But I think now the most important thing to understand is, to know what happened on 9/11. And unfortunately, not all of the evidence is out there. The Transportation Security Administration is still keeping some of the aviation evidence secret. They won’t let us know what happened on those planes. And we need to make sure that they finally let the truth be told, so we know what happened, so that we can make sure it doesn’t happen again.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Carie Lemack. Her mother, Judy Larocque, was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11. We’re joined right now by Phyllis Rodriguez. Her son, Gregory Ernesto Rodriguez was 31 years old when he died in the September 11th attacks. He worked on the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center for Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost 700 of 1,000 workers. Phyllis Rodriguez recently spent time with Zacarias Moussaoui’s mother, Aicha El Wafi. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Phyllis.

PHYLLIS RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. I remember well just a few days after the attacks speaking with you and your husband Orlando about the loss of your son Greg. What are your thoughts today?

PHYLLIS RODRIGUEZ: I’m very, very pleased. We both are very pleased and relieved that the jury did the honest and honorable thing and did not allow itself to be swayed by the overly emotional case that the government presented to try to have Zacarias Moussaoui executed.

I feel that he has been a symbolic defendant, that the testimony showed that he really did not know anything about the attacks. He is an admitted member of al-Qaeda. He does share the philosophy of many of the al-Qaeda people, but not only was he in custody three weeks before the attacks, but he was not privy to the planning of the attacks. The jury had to grapple with a lot of stuff, because unfortunately the government wanted him to pay the price for the September 11th attacks and concentrated on that, rather than what he actually did.

I believe that the defense did an excellent job in its presentation of testimony and cross-examination of the government’s witnesses, which clearly showed to me that the government had no case really. The original case was six charges of conspiracy, to learn to fly planes to harm property, to kill people, etc., etc. There had been nothing about 9/11 in the original six conspiracy charges to which Zacarias pleaded guilty last April of 2005. In federal capital cases, if someone is found guilty or pleads guilty and a possible sentence is the death penalty, then whether or not that defendant is defending himself, he must by law have a professional defender, which he did, even though he didn’t cooperate with them.

So, this sentencing trial, which was divided into two parts, was done in an interesting way. The first phase was an attempt by the government to bring — to connect Moussaoui to the actual 9/11 attacks, since the original six indictments were not specifically related to 9/11. And they apparently, because of the jury’s verdict, they managed to convince the jury that because Moussaoui withheld information and/or lied to federal officials when he was arrested on August 16 of 2001, that he helped his al-Qaeda brothers and let the attacks go on, that if he had told what he knew to the government, at least one life could have been saved. So, based on that, the jury found him guilty of being responsible for at least one life during the attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Rodriguez, I wanted to turn now to Aicha El Wafi in her own words, the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui. She came to our studios in November of 2002. At that point, her son had been held for more than a year. We were broadcasting from the garret of the Firehouse then. We’re now on the first floor. So for those who are watching, you’ll see the difference. She spoke in French and then was translated.

AICHA EL WAFI: [translated] I hope the American people will not make the mistake of sentencing an innocent, just because they need to appease their emotion to calm down. I want my son to be tried for what he did, but not for what he didn’t do. And I don’t want him to be tried just because he’s an Arab or because he’s educated, but he’s poor. I want a fair trial.

And what really — I’m really concerned that he saw a psychiatrist only for two hours, and this psychiatrist said he was able to represent himself. And now he doesn’t get access to the legal materials he needs to represent himself. So, for me, it’s going to be a masquerade. It’s going to be a mock trial. He won’t have a fair trial.

And it would be such a mistake in a democracy, in a big democracy like the United States, that such a big mistake is made.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, Aicha El Wafi. Here you are, two mothers, Phyllis. You lost your son, Greg. In a sense, she has lost her son. He has not been sentenced to death, sentenced to life in prison without parole. And you spent time with her. Your thoughts? Could you talk about Aicha right now?

PHYLLIS RODRIGUEZ: Yes. We met around the time that you performed that interview — we, my husband Orlando, myself and several other family members who lost people in the attacks, arranged by Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation and the International Federation for Human Rights, which is a Paris-based federation. We met privately because we weren’t ready yet to have any media attention. We met at Aicha’s request, and I was very, very happy to meet her. I had thought that I would try to at some point, but she made the move first.

We were all nervous about meeting each other, but she broke the tension for everybody by opening up the conversation with an apology to us and an expression of sympathy. She said, "I don’t know if my son is guilty or innocent, but I’m so sorry for your losses." We responded to the warmth and generosity of Aicha.

Since then, I have maintained a friendship with her, and particularly in the last year since Zacarias Moussaoui pleaded guilty, we have become very close. She is a very, very strong person who, however, is suffering from the four-and-a-half years of this enormous burden that she carries, as a mother, as a woman with a terribly hard early life, who has worked so hard to overcome abuse, a marriage to an abusive husband that was an arranged marriage when she was 14; having six children, losing two when they were young; overcoming being a foreigner, a North African in France, and learning the French and assimilating; succeeding in supporting her children, her four children as a single mother; doing what we all do, the best for her family.

She has not lost her warmth and generosity of spirit and her great joie de vivre. We’ve been together quite a bit in the last two months. And I am so in awe of her ability to enjoy things, to be funny, to take an intense interest in other people, and to remember everybody.

AMY GOODMAN: Is she meeting with her son Zacarias Moussaoui?

PHYLLIS RODRIGUEZ: She has not met with him since November of 2002. After that, they spoke on the phone once a month. But after he pleaded guilty a year ago, it was very difficult for them to speak to each other. So by mutual consent, they stopped the phone calls. In March, when the opening statements were given and the trial began in Alexandria — that was March 6 — we were in Alexandria, and she attended the first three days of the trial, was in the courtroom, was very much hoping that he would recognize her and would want her to visit him in the detention center where he’s been kept. He didn’t. He’s hurt her deeply, but she’s come to realize that it’s too painful for him to deal with her pain right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Rodriguez, I want to thank you very much for being with us. We have one minute left. I wanted to go to Minneapolis to Coleen Rowley, who is the former F.B.I. special agent who accused F.B.I. officials of hampering the investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui and ignoring warnings of possible hijackings. She was named Time Woman of the Year. Coleen Rowley, very briefly, your response?

COLEEN ROWLEY: Well, I think the jury did its job. It thoughtfully considered the evidence. It’s obvious it went through all the mitigating and aggravating factors and came up with a good result, all considered. This case, of course, was fraught with mistakes, both before the attacks and actually also after the attacks, in a sense. But ultimately it shows the criminal justice system can work.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think it shows about the F.B.I. and the current administration?

COLEEN ROWLEY: Well, I’m hoping that in the future, of course, we can get back more to that Rassam model of disrupting — he was the "Millennium Bomber." So, obviously, you need to disrupt the terrorism ahead of time, but then also you need to use the criminal justice system to get the information to be better in the future on other terrorist attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: Coleen Rowley, Phyllis Rodriguez, I want to thank you for being with us. Again, the latest news is that the jury has decided not to put Zacarias Moussaoui to death, that he will spend his life in prison without parole.

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