The federal judge in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person ever to appear in the United States in the Sept.
US District Judge Leonie Brinkema led the lengthy process in Alexandria, Virginia. The courthouse is near the Pentagon, which was one of the three targets hit by terrorist hijackers this week 20 years ago. She made rare public comments about the trial during a panel discussion hosted by the US Attorney’s Office for East Virginia.
“I think our approach to terrorists should really be an approach to criminals. They shouldn’t get increased respect or treatment, ”she said.
Brinkema noted that after the trial was over, Moussaoui asked to withdraw his guilty guilty admission and filed for a new trial. He assumed he would get the death penalty; when he didn’t, he said he realized he could get a fair trial in front of an American jury, she recalled.
Moussaoui, who came to the US from France, was arrested 28 days before the September 11, 2001 attacks. Officials at a flight school in Minneapolis told the FBI they were suspicious of Moussaoui’s desire to just learn how to operate a Boeing 747 jet. They said he told them “an ego enhancement thing”.
The FBI learned that Moussaoui had no background in aviation and did not even have a private pilot license. Agents arrested him after worrying he was about to commit a terrorist attack. The most damaging evidence in the trial came from Moussaoui himself. He said he knew about the suicide abductions planned by al-Qaeda, but said he did not know the scheduled date for the attacks.
And he said that when he was arrested, he lied to the FBI to prevent agents from finding out about the conspiracy.
Robert Spencer, the lead prosecutor in the case, announced during the discussion on Thursday that shortly after Moussaoui’s arrest, a military attorney approached the prosecutor.
“He said, ‘Look, everyone knows you can’t. And we’re going to prosecute, convict and execute him before you even start,'” Spencer said. “We politely refused.”
But, said Spencer, “we were always a little afraid that Moussaoui would be dragged to Guantanamo Bay and that we would never see him.”
As it turned out, the military tribunals at the US naval base in Cuba have not yet successfully completed a single trial. Moussaoui initially claimed he was part of the original kidnapping plan, with his role personally confirmed by Osama bin Laden.
But the 9/11 commission reported that al-Qaeda planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed denied Moussaoui was ever part of the conspiracy, and US intelligence officials said they doubt it too. After fighting the charges for months, Moussaoui decided to plead guilty to being part of a terrorist conspiracy. Then he changed his story and insisted that it had nothing to do with 9/11.
“I was trained on the 747 to attack the White House with a plane,” he said in court, presumably for a follow-up attack.
During the sentencing phase, the jury spared him the death penalty. Some jurors considered his role insignificant and concluded that he had limited knowledge of the actual plan of attack. Security during the process was strict. The city of Alexandria rerouted city buses to avoid the courthouse.
Moussaoui repeatedly submitted handwritten pleadings to the “Brinkema death judge” complaining about the proceedings. When he was led out of the courtroom every day, he would blurt out short sentences such as “God curse you”. When he was sentenced to life in prison, he shouted, “America, you lost. I won,” and clapped his hands twice.
He has been serving his life sentence in Colorado Supermax Prison since 2006.
“Due to the scale and complexity of the case and the profound impact the trial had on the families and survivors of the 11th attacks, he is currently serving as a US attorney.