Jury Selection Begins for Moussaoui Sentencing
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now, today in Alexandria, Virginia, attorneys begin selecting the jurors who will decide whether Zacarias Moussaoui should be executed or spend his life in prison. Moussaoui's been in custody since before the September 11 attacks. He's pleaded guilty to playing a role in that terror plot.
His case has raised new questions about the ability of the courts to try complex terror cases as NPR's Larry Abrahmson reports.
LARRY ABRAHMSON reporting:
December 11th, 2001, exactly two months after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, FBI Director Robert Mueller announced the first indictment in the 9-11 conspiracy. The defendant was Zacarias Moussaoui, whose movements mimicked those of the 19 hijackers.
Mr. ROBERT MUELLER (FBI Director): He attended flight school and took commercial flight training courses. He purchased flight deck videos from an Ohio flight store just as Muhammad Atta and the other hijackers had done before him.
ABRAHMSON: The indictment seemed a sign the U.S. was moving aggressively to hunt down everyone connected with the attacks, and bring them swiftly to justice. But justice in this case has been anything but swift.
The man once labeled the twentieth hijacker quickly threw the legal proceedings into disarray. He attacked his court-appointed attorneys and demanded he be allowed to represent himself.
Public Defender Frank Dunham stuck with Moussaoui despite the abuse. In July of 2202, Dunham described Moussaoui as much more complicated than he appeared.
Mr. FRANK W. DUNHAM, JR. (Federal Public Defender, Eastern District of Virginia): And he knows about American culture. I mean, he'll say things like I don't want an O.J. trial or whenever he refers, he never says the word lies, he always says Clinton lies. But that doesn't make him operating on all cylinders.
ABRAMSON: In the months to come, Moussaoui would alternately admit he was a terrorist, plead guilty and then withdraw his plea. While Moussaoui filled hand-scrawled motions with a mix of legal opinions and anti-Semitic remarks, his public defenders conducted a vigorous defense that brought the case to a standstill.
They insisted they be allowed to interview al-Qaeda leaders in U.S. custody, saying they would testify that Moussaoui's role in 9/11 was marginal at most. The judge agreed and said she would take the death penalty off the table if the government refused access. In December 2003, Deputy Solicitor General Paul Clement told a Federal Appeals Court, letting the detainees testify would interfere with vital interrogations.
Mr. PAUL D. CLEMENT (Solicitor General of the United States): But you're forcing the government to choose between a prosecution of somebody who is alleged to have committed past terrorist acts and a military operation including questioning that is designed to prevent future terrorist attacks.
ABRAMSON: In 2004, the Appeals Court allowed the government to pursue the death penalty and last year the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. While the Moussaoui case broke new legal ground, the story of his arrest just weeks before the 9/11 attacks helped expose the FBI's dismal organizational problems. The day Moussaoui was indicted in 2001, FBI Director Robert Mueller struggled to explain why FBI agents did not get authorization from headquarters for a FISA warrant which would have allowed them to search Moussaoui's computer.
Mr. ROBERT S. MUELLER, III (Director, United States Federal Bureau of Investigation): All I can tell you is that the agents on the scene attempted to follow up aggressively and the attorneys back at FBI determined that there was insufficient probable cause for a FISA which appears to be an accurate decision and September 11th happened.
ABRAMSON: Further investigation by Congress uncovered a struggle within the FBI over that warrant. Chief Congressional Investigator Eleanor Hill testified that an FBI supervisor in Minneapolis ran into a bureaucratic brick wall despite his dead-on suspicion about Moussaoui.
Ms. ELEANOR J. HILL (Staff Director, Joint Inquiry Staff): The supervisor replied that he was trying to get people at FBI headquarters spun up because he was trying to make sure that Moussaoui quote "did not take control of a plane and fly it into the World Trade Center" close quote.
ABRAMSON: And now Moussaoui's encounter with the FBI will decide whether he gets the death penalty. Moussaoui has pleaded guilty but insists he had no direct role in 9/11. He says he was to take part in a later attack. Nevertheless, prosecutors say they will show Moussaoui caused the deaths of thousands by lying to the FBI after his arrest. The Moussaoui case has tested the legal system and it may also test the reserves of the families of the 9/11 victims. More than a thousand people have signed up to view the trial at six remote viewing locations. Loretta Filipov of Concord, Massachusetts lost her husband on American Airlines Flight 11. She says Moussaoui may be guilty, but so are others.
Mrs. LORETTA FILIPOV (Widow of Alexander Milan Filipov, September 11 Victim): He lied after they captured him and didn't tell them what they wanted to know and, therefore, 3,000 people died. Do you know what I want to say to that? So did everybody else. That's how I feel.
ABRAMSON: Jury selection is expected to take as long as a month. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.