Sept. 11 Families Make Feelings Felt at Moussaoui Trial

Family members of Sept. 11 victims take the stand during the sentencing trial of confessed terrorist conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. Though federal court rules prevent anyone but attorneys from explicitly recommending a sentence, it was clear that some of those who lost loved ones felt strongly about Moussaoui's fate.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. The defense in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui may be ready to rest its case today, against giving him the death penalty. Yesterday, defense attorneys presented more evidence that Moussaoui is mentally ill. The jury also heard from families of victims who favor life in prison for the admitted al-Qaida member.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports from the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

After hours of testimony over whether Moussaoui is schizophrenic, the mood in the courtroom changed abruptly when a woman named Marilyn Rosenthal(ph) took the stand. She lost her son, Josh, at the world Trade Center on 9/11. But Rosenthal was unlike any of the victims who testified earlier for the prosecution. She shed no tears and remained calm and composed. She fondly recalled her son's many talents, but then said she felt very strongly she did not want to get caught up in what she called a whirlpool of anger and sadness. What Rosenthal could not say on the stand, is that she is against sentencing Moussaoui to death. Federal court rules prevent anyone but the attorneys from explicitly recommending a sentence.

Outside the courthouse, Rosenthal explained.

Ms. MARILYN ROSENTHAL (Defense Witness, Zacarias Moussaoui Trial): Mr. Moussaoui is the wrong man to be on trial. There are other people who are in the custody of the U.S. government who were central planners for the 9/11 event. Those are the people who should have been on trial. All my research, and all the information I have suggests that Mr. Moussaoui is a very marginal and undependable character.

ABRAMSON: Like many of the family members testifying for the defense, Rosenthal stressed the positive steps she'd taken to remember her son--like starting a lecture series on 9/11 at the University of Michigan, or how the family named a cookie after Josh.

Many said they were guided by religious feelings. After Robin(ph) Sercoff(ph) lost her husband, she shifted from the Yale Political Science Department, to the divinity school. She said that as a Christian woman, I have to ponder why the world is the way it is. She said that she had learned that we are all broken people, but we are all children of God.

Donald Bane, who lost his son Michael on 9/11 recalled that his son often gave him living things as presents: pets or plants. When Michael died, Bane founded a music scholarship in his son's name. Bane said, I try to think of the ways I could learn more, understand more. We so desperately need bridges of understanding with people who could do this kind of thing.

All the defense victims seemed to gain some strength from testifying. Outside the courthouse, Marilyn Rosenthal said she felt she was doing her patriotic duty. She said she was not trying to tell the jury what to decide.

Ms. ROSENTHAL: I tried to look at the jury as much as possible; they have a very heavy task, and they were listening very attentively. They're doing a very difficult job and they're working hard.

ABRAMSON: The final witness came the closest to saying that killing Moussaoui would be wrong. Anthony Aversano said he had been angry at his father and refused to speak to him for a long time. The two reconciled in 1999 and Aversano talked about how overjoyed he was to have his father back. When his father died on 9/11, Aversano said he realized he had a decision to make. He could give in to what he calls the terror within him and let him control him, as he did when he and his father weren't speaking. Aversano said, he realized he could make another choice. More families are expected to speak today, as the defense prepares to rest its case.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.

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