Legal Analysis of the Moussaoui Sentencing Verdict

Michael Greenberger, a law school professor at the University of Maryland, talks with John Ydstie about the meaning of the Moussaoui sentencing verdict.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

One of the people who has been closely watching the Moussaoui trial is Michael Greenberger. He's a law school professor at the university of Maryland. He says the government's failure to get the death penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui clearly is a big disappointment for the prosecution.

Professor MICHAEL GREENBERGER (Law, University of Maryland): There's no mistaking that their effort in prosecuting Mr. Moussaoui was intended to be sort of the center piece of their efforts to vindicate the events of 9/11, and they had set an ambitious goal of seeking the death penalty against Mr. Moussaoui. They brought the case in a jurisdiction where they thought it was most likely that the death penalty would be handed down, and it was, I'm sure, a very disappointing result for them yesterday.

YDSTIE: So, do you think they overreached?

Prof. GREENBERGER: Yes, I think they did overreach, and I think that's the postmortem of all this. And I think the most clear indication of that is the families and their response. Many of the family members said last night that Mr. Moussaoui was nothing more that an al-Qaida wannabe, and not the real thing. And he was clearly a marginal character, and had it not been for his testimony, his aggressive seeking of the death penalty on his own behalf, the government really would have had no case at all.

YDSTIE: On the other side, what do you think are the most important things that the defense did right?

Prof. GREENBERGER: Well, first of all, it was a remarkable effort by the defense team. They had a witness who was giving every indication that he wanted the death penalty and giving the government all the ammunition they needed to reach that result, but they persevered. And what is clearly important--looking at the findings the jury made on the mitigating factors, the factors that pointed away from the death sentence--is that they were able to craft a case that relied on Moussaoui's upbringing and his background. And they were able to get the jury to step back, to move away from the passion of the sentencing proceeding, and the jury--in a very careful, rational way--went through all the judge's instructions and found that these factors outweighed his very bad activity and his lack of remorse, and decided that a life sentence without parole was the appropriate punishment here.

YDSTIE: Zacarias Moussaoui is the only person charged in the U.S. in connection with the September 11th attack so far. How do you think the experience of this trial will affect future trials of terror suspects, possibly Kali Sheik Mohammed, for instance?

Prof. GREENBERGER: Well, I think the families who are the weather vane pointing the direction of how the government should be handling the war on terror are asking the question of why such a marginal figure was made the target of the Justice Department's efforts to vindicate the events of 9/11, and they are asking the same question: why not the al-Qaida operatives who clearly were involved in the planning of the 9/11 events? Why are they not being brought to trial? They're being held abroad, and those are big questions that the government is going to have answer. My own suspicion is that those operatives were subjected to torture in their interrogation, and that the government really can't bring them forward, because A, it will reveal the way in which these detainees have been handled. And B, it will be highly questionable whether any evidence can be used against them if it was extracted by aggressive interrogation techniques.

YDSTIE: Thank you very much. Michael Greenberger is a law school professor at the University of Maryland.

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