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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 May 2006, 23:34 GMT 00:34 UK
Final act for an extra in the 9/11 plot
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News, Washington

In the end, Zacarias Moussaoui did not seize enough rope to hang himself.

World Trade Center collapses in New York, 9 September 2001
Mr Moussaoui was only a minor player in the 9/11 attacks

And perhaps - despite his testimony in court that he had planned to fly a plane into the White House on 11 September - he never meant to.

For when the only man charged in the United States over the 9/11 attacks was led out of the court on Wednesday, his life having been spared, he shouted: "America, you lost!

"Novak, you lost!" he continued, referring to one of the prosecutors. "I won!"

It was a surprising outburst from a man many had assumed was actively seeking to be executed as a martyr for the cause of Osama Bin Laden-inspired Islamic fundamentalism.

He had refused to co-operate with defence attorneys, and twice took the stand in defiance of their advice.

As the trial came to an end, Judge Leonie Brinkema praised the defence for their work to save the life of a man she said would probably never appreciate it.

Two weeks later, when the jury returned with its verdict of life in prison after 41 hours of deliberation, she praised the lawyers on both sides.

Central character

Moussaoui had been largely impassive as she read out the verdict and the list of factors the jury had considered in reaching it, but when the judge addressed the lawyers, a smile spread across his face.

He cocked his head and looked at the row of suited attorneys with a faintly mocking expression when she spoke to the prosecutors.

Moussaoui in court
Moussaoui presented himself as a disciple of Osama Bin Laden

And then, as she turned to the defence, he flashed a V for victory.

Judge Brinkema is now obliged to hand down a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole when the court reconvenes on Thursday morning.

The verdict will bring the curtain down on the strange second act of a drama that began an untold number of years ago, when a group of radicals hatched a plot to hijack planes and fly them into iconic American buildings.

Act One climaxed when one of those planes slammed into the Pentagon, the seat of the defence department, just outside the Washington DC city limits in Virginia.

Act Two had begun three weeks earlier, when the FBI arrested Zacarias Moussaoui on immigration charges after he had aroused suspicions at a flight school.

Having been a minor player in the first act, he became the central character in the second - the only plotter the government had, the only one they could bring to court.

Mitigating factor

His drama lasted for nearly five years, as the prosecution sought to reprise the awful events of 9/11 in a courthouse just a few miles from Pentagon.

Spokesman delivers Moussaoui verdict
The end of the trial ends the second act of a strange drama

But in the end, they failed to meet the high standard the US demands in capital cases - proving not only that Moussaoui was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but also that no mitigating circumstances could spare his life.

The defence had sought to show that he was insane, and in his closing argument, lawyer Gerald Zerkin urged the jury not to grant him the martyr's death he appeared to desire.

Curiously, the jury was not moved by either of those arguments.

If anything, it was Moussaoui's difficult childhood and abusive father that moved them. Nine of the 12 jurors cited those as mitigating factors that should save him from the death penalty.

And three of them chose to add a mitigating factor to the long list they were offered by the court - that Moussaoui had little knowledge of the 9/11 plot.

US juries must vote unanimously for death.

In the end, this jury may have been prevented from choosing death for Moussaoui because of the conviction of those three anonymous jurors that, central a player as Moussaoui was in this Virginia courthouse, when it came to the actual horror of 9/11, he was just a bit player.


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