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Marjorie Cohn: Moussaoui Jurors Choose Life

Moussaoui Jurors Choose Life

By Marjorie Cohn
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Friday 05 May 2006

The Bush administration's four-year crusade to kill Zacarias Moussaoui for whatever role he played in the September 11 attacks ended Wednesday when the jury declared Moussaoui will live. Seekers of vengeance are furious that the jury did not opt for death. But the verdict reveals that justice has been done.

Moussaoui, a mentally ill wannabe terrorist, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in connection with the 9/11 attacks. At his sentencing hearing, the jury heard heart-wrenching testimony that brought the reality of September 11 into the courtroom. Prosecutors were confident the jury would say that Moussaoui must die to avenge the worst terrorist attack on US soil in our history.

The jury struggled for seven days before deciding Moussaoui would spend the rest of his life in prison. Jurors could not agree that Moussaoui caused the deaths of nearly 3,000 people. Nine of the 12 jurors considered the circumstances of Moussaoui's early life to be mitigating factors. His father physically and emotionally abused his family, and Moussaoui spent much of his childhood in orphanages.

Perhaps most significant was the testimony of family members of the 9/11 victims. Twelve testified for the defense. Although the rules forbade them from telling the jury that they favored life over death for Moussaoui, their intent was clear. This is the first time victim family members who oppose capital punishment have ever testified in a federal death penalty trial.

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These family members gave the jury permission to let Moussaoui live.

Although they did not speak out during the trial, they are now expressing relief at the jury's verdict.

Robin Theurkauf, whose husband died in the World Trade Center, testified for the defense. A divinity student at Yale, Theurkauf said, "We may have given them [the jurors] permission to free themselves from an obligation to respond to the massive grief with vengeance. We allowed them to view the case dispassionately."

"More than anyone, we understand why the jury chose the sentence they did," said Terry Rockefeller, whose sister Laura Rockefeller was in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. "As a long-time opponent of the death penalty, a belief even this devastating personal tragedy has not altered, I am relieved by the jury's decision not to sentence Zacarias Moussaoui to death." Rockefeller is a member of the Board of Directors of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation.

Antonio Aversano also testified for the defense. His father, Louis Aversano Jr., was a World Trade Center victim. Aversano believes "that our best personal defense against terrorism is to not let the fear and hatred of terror consume our lives but to take whatever steps are necessary to reclaim our hearts, to honor each other and to live life well."

Other family members also spoke of the importance of modeling a compassionate society for our children.

"Beyond the verdict in this trial, I oppose using the death penalty to demonstrate to citizens that murder is so wrong that we will kill to prove it wrong," said Patricia Perry. Her son John William Perry was a member of the New York Police Department who died at the World Trade Center. "State killing teaches our children that we do not mean what we say and inures us as a society to the horror of killing."

Loretta Filipov's husband Al was on the first plane to the hit the World Trade Center. She feels that "killing Zacarias Moussaoui will not bring my husband back. It will not change the life my family and I now have without my husband and their father. But what killing will do," she said, "is to continue the cycle of violence, hate and revenge. This is not the face we want for our future, for our children and grandchildren."

Both Andrea LeBlanc and her husband Robert, who was a passenger on the second plane that crashed into the World Trade Center, opposed the death penalty. "For me, now, this particular case is no exception," she said. "Violence takes many forms and killing another human being will never undo the harm that has been done." LeBlanc observed, "Killing Zacarias Moussaoui would not have helped us understand those things that lead to 9/11. Nor would it have helped create the kind of compassionate world I want to live in."

After Judge Leonie Brinkema pronounced the official sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for Zacarias Moussaoui, she told him he would "die with a whimper" without ever speaking publicly again.

Moussaoui got the worst of the two possible punishments, in the opinion of Abraham J. Bonowitz, co-founder and director of Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Now that Moussaoui has been sentenced, he "will be effectively silenced, and he'll lose the soapbox that he would have gotten if he were sent to death row." Bonowitz noted that Moussaoui "also loses the power to sustain the pain of victims' families - a fact seemingly lost on the pro-deathies of the world."


Marjorie Cohn, a contributing editor to t r u t h o u t, is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, executive vice president of the National Lawyers Guild, and the US representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists.

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