New York Times
March 18, 2002

Prosecutors Seek a Death Sentence in Terrorism Case


WASHINGTON -- Federal prosecutors in Virginia and New York are seeking the death penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui, who has been identified by law enforcement officials as the "20th hijacker" in the Sept. 11 attacks, government officials said today.

The move, which is expected to be approved in Washington and announced in court next week, comes as prosecutors offered some of the first details of the trial preparations, including their plans to seek testimony from many relatives of the Sept. 11 victims in urging a jury to put Mr. Moussaoui to death.

Officials would not say if the prosecutors had received the final approval from the Justice Department needed to pursue the death penalty. But they said the approval was all but certain given Attorney General John Ashcroft's strong support of capital punishment and his statement last year that Mr. Moussaoui "engaged in the same preparation for murder" as the 19 hijackers.

The case is scheduled for trial this fall in Alexandria, Va., outside Washington. Government officials said the written request to the Justice Department to seek the death penalty was signed by both Paul J. McNulty, the United States attorney in Alexandria, and James B. Comey, the United States attorney in Manhattan. Prosecutors and investigators from the two offices have worked closely together on the case.

Mr. Moussaoui, a 33-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent, is charged with conspiring in the attacks last year, although no detailed evidence linking him to the hijackers has ever been made public.

Mr. Moussaoui was in a prison cell on the day of the attacks; he had been arrested in Minnesota in August on visa violations after raising the suspicions of a flight school where he was training.

Four of the six counts brought against Mr. Moussaoui carry a maximum sentence of death, and the Justice Department faces a court-imposed March 29 deadline to announce whether prosecutors will seek his execution.

A decision to seek the death penalty was previewed in a letter sent last week to relatives of many of the Sept. 11 victims asking for their help.

The letter, signed by David J. Novak, a lead prosecutor in the case, said that if the Justice Department gave final approval, "the Moussaoui case will become a capital prosecution, meaning that the United States will be asking the jury to find that defendant Moussaoui should be executed should he be found guilty."

"During any death penalty prosecution, the government has the right to present evidence during the sentencing hearing known as the penalty phase involving the impact of the crime upon the victims," the letter said. "We intend to offer such evidence and, therefore, solicit your help in our prosecution."

It continued, "We want you to understand that this victim-impact evidence will be presented in support of our request that Mr. Moussaoui should be executed."

Mr. Moussaoui's lawyers either had no comment or did not return phone calls from a reporter.

Government officials said the defense lawyers were so certain that the death penalty would be sought that they had declined to attend a Justice Department hearing at which they could have argued that the death penalty was an inappropriate punishment in the case. Such a hearing is routine when federal prosecutors are weighing whether to seek the death penalty.

"Apparently the defense didn't want to show its hand to us yet," one official said.

Mr. Moussaoui's lawyers are widely expected to focus on a lack of evidence tying Mr. Moussaoui directly to the Sept. 11 hijackers or the planning of the terrorist attacks.

The government's case appears to rely largely on actions by Mr. Moussaoui that resembled those of the hijackers, like receiving flight training in the United States.

He is also accused of training at camps in Afghanistan run by the Qaeda terrorism network and of receiving money from the same sources in Germany and the Middle East as the hijackers.

Government officials said the Justice Department had stepped up its investigation overseas of Mr. Moussaoui in an effort to bolster the case. Spokesmen for Mr. Moussaoui's family in France have said that his mother and brother have been summoned for interviews there with an investigator from the United States attorney's office in Alexandria.

American officials said negotiations were continuing with the Malaysian government over the possible extradition to the United States of a Malaysian businessman who has confessed that he played host at different times to Mr. Moussaoui and to a pair of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

In the letter to family members of those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks and to injured victims, Mr. Novak said prosecutors would argue for the death penalty for Mr. Moussaoui by citing "the individual stories of approximately 30 victims who will serve as a microcosm of all."

The letter invited the recipients to meetings in New York, Washington or Boston to be interviewed. "The crimes committed on Sept. 11 resulted in the death of more than 3,000 people and serious injuries to thousands more," it said. "Obviously, we cannot tell the story of every victim; otherwise, the trial would last forever."

Copyright 2002, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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