(photo credit: AP [file])
A federal jury rejected the death penalty for al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui on Wednesday and decided he must spend life in prison for his role in the deadliest terrorist attack in US history.
After seven days of deliberation, the nine men and three women rebuffed the government's appeal for death for the only person charged in this country in the four suicide jetliner hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 people on September 11, 2001.
The verdict came after four years of legal maneuvering and a six-week trial that put jurors on an emotional roller coaster and gave the 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent a platform to taunt Americans. The judge was to hand down the life sentence Thursday morning, bound by the jury's verdict.
It was the sixth consecutive case since the death penalty was restored in 1976 in which federal prosecutors failed to obtain an execution in this courthouse - all the more striking this time because the Pentagon, one of the terrorists targets, is just miles away.
In their successful defense of Moussaoui, his lawyers revealed new levels of pre-attack bungling of intelligence by the FBI and other government agencies. By the trial's end, the defense team was portraying its uncooperative client as a delusional schizophrenic. They argued he took the witness stand to confess a role in September 11 that he never had - all to achieve martyrdom through execution or for recognition in history.
They overcame the impact of two dramatic appearances by Moussaoui himself - first to renounce his four years of denying any involvement in the attacks and then to gloat over the pain of those who lost loved ones.
Using evidence gathered in the largest investigation in US history, prosecutors achieved a preliminary victory last month when the jury ruled Moussaoui's lies to federal agents a month before the attacks made him eligible for the death penalty because they kept agents from discovering some of the hijackers.
But even with heart-rending testimony from nearly four dozen victims and their relatives - testimony that forced some jurors to wipe their eyes - the jury was not convinced that Moussaoui, who was in jail on Septemner 11, deserved to die.
The case broke new ground in the understanding of September 11 - releasing to the public the first transcript and playing in court the cockpit tape of United 93's last half hour. The tape captured the sounds of terrorists hijacking the aircraft over Pennsylvania and passengers trying to retake the jet until it crashed in a field.