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Trial to decide Moussaoui's fate begins this week

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, Mar 5 (Reuters) The US government will begin this week to detail how much it knew before the September 11 attacks at a trial to decide if Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person convicted in the United States in connection with the hijackings, will receive the death penalty.

Moussaoui, 37, pleaded guilty in April to all six counts against him -- three of which carry the death penalty.

Whether he will be sentenced to death or life in prison will be decided by a jury being finalized tomorrow in Alexandria, Virginia, just a few miles from the Pentagon one of the targets on September 11, 2001.

Federal prosecutors will call their first witnesses after US District Judge Leonie Brinkema completes what has been a month-long process to find an unbiased panel of 12 jurors and six alternates.

The trial will have two stages and, for the first time in court, the government is expected to detail what it knew and did not know before the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Federal prosecutors will first try to prove that Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent arrested in August 2001 after raising suspicions at a flight school, lied to the FBI shortly after his arrest about his knowledge of the September 11 plot.

If the jury finds that Moussaoui lied, resulting in the death of at least one person on September. 11, then another trial phase would consider imposing the death penalty.

''What knowledge the government possessed before September. 11 regarding members of al Qaeda, and specifically links between al Qaeda and the eventual hijackers, is a key issue in dispute in this death penalty trial,'' Brinkema said in a recent order.

THE DEFENSE The court-appointed defense attorneys say it will be hard to prove that Moussaoui could have told the FBI anything that would have prevented the September. 11 hijackings.

''Substantial evidence will be presented at trial that the United States government knew more about al Qaeda's plans to attack the United States than did Mr. Moussaoui,'' the defense said in a court filing.

''There is no evidence in the record that Mr. Moussaoui knew any of the actual September. 11 hijackers by name, that they were in the United States or their locations,'' they wrote.

When he pleaded guilty last year, Moussaoui said he was not meant to be part of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.

But he told the court he had pledged allegiance to al Qaeda and was ''guilty of a broad conspiracy'' to use airplanes as a weapon, and said he was being trained on a 747 airliner to strike the White House.

It was unclear if Moussaoui, who has often been outspoken in court, would testify in the trial or even be allowed to stay in the courtroom. After several outbursts during jury selection, Brinkema warned he would have to watch on closed-circuit television if he could not be quiet.

Moussaoui's mother, who is due to come from France to watch the trial, recently urged the jury to be fair.

Although the court district is considered more sympathetic to the death penalty than some other US regions, no one has been sentenced to death at the Alexandria courthouse.

The trial is expected to last one to three months. It will be held under strict security and the jury will be anonymous.

Moussaoui's trial was delayed repeatedly for appeals over his access to al Qaeda detainees he said could help his case.

Much of the evidence to be presented in the case is classified, and the government may show the jury some classified data intended never to be made public.

Special trial viewing rooms have been set up across the country for victims and family members of those who died on September. 11.


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