Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
The capital sentencing trial of terror conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is not exactly what it seems and certainly not like other high profile trials we've seen lately anywhere in the country. So with opening statements set to begin, it is time for another question and answer installment of CourtWatch, in which I ask the questions (I think you would ask) and then answer them (as best I can).
Question: Who is Moussaoui and why should we care about him more than all the other so-called Al Qaeda operatives who have been scooped up since September 11, 2001?
Answer: Moussaoui is a foreign-born confessed al Qaeda terror trainee who was arrested on immigration charges in Minnesota in August 2001-- about five weeks before the terror attacks. He was arrested after he raised suspicions while learning how to fly -- he wanted to start with 747s, it seems.
When questioned by the authorities back then, he did not disclose his al Qaeda ties or otherwise share with US officials the group's plans to have terrorists fly planes into buildings. Last year in court, he told his judge that he was part of a second wave of terror pilots who were going to try to bust a Muslim cleric out of federal prison in Colorado.
Question: But if he is a confessed terrorist, why are we having a trial?
Answer: We are having a federal sentencing trial, in Alexandria, Virginia, near the Pentagon, because the government wants to obtain a death sentence so it can execute Moussaoui for the crimes to which he has confessed. Last April, against the advice of his attorneys - with whom he has fought for years - Moussaoui pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit terrorism, aircraft piracy, and murder, among other things.
In order to get a capital sentence, the feds now must establish that Moussaoui's actions - or, more precisely, his inaction - directly caused at least one death on 9-11. And then the feds have to convince jurors that the "aggravating" factors warranting a death sentence outweigh whatever "mitigating" factors exist on behalf of Moussaoui.
Question: So it's a slam dunk, then, right? I mean, the guy is a terrorist, and he was part of the 9-11 plot, and he's the only one left who is either alive or able to be brought to justice.
Answer: The result may end up looking easy for prosecutors: it's hard to imagine jurors having much sympathy for Moussaoui or much patience with the arguments of his lawyers - but this case is a lot more complicated than it appears.
Mostly, that's because even the government itself now concedes that Moussaoui was not the "20th hijacker" of 9-11. In fact, federal prosecutors cannot prove that Moussaoui even knew about the specific plot carried out by Mohammad Atta and his cohorts on that day.
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