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U.S. to seek death penalty for Moussaoui

Zacarias Moussaoui  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The federal government will seek the death penalty against Zacarias Moussaoui, the first criminal defendant charged in connection with the September 11 terror attacks, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said Thursday.

Speaking at a press briefing in Miami, Florida, Ashcroft said he has authorized federal prosecutors to seek a death sentence if Moussaoui is convicted of conspiracy in the terrorist attacks.

"Among these reasons was the impact of the crime on thousands of victims," Ashcroft said. "We are committed not only to carrying out justice in this case but also to ensure that the rights of the victims are protected."

Federal prosecutors filed papers Thursday stating their intent to pursue capital punishment at the U.S. District Courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, where Moussaoui will be tried in the fall.

CNN's Susan Candiotti reports U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft gave the go-ahead to seek the death penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui (March 28)

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"I can only give you no comment," said one of Moussaoui's attorneys, Frank Dunham. "I don't believe in trying cases in the press. Apparently the attorney general does."

He added, "It's a media circus and it shouldn't be."

More than 3,000 people were killed in the September 11 attacks when two hijacked planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and a third one slammed into the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania after passengers fought the hijackers for control of the aircraft.

Prosecutors have suggested that Moussaoui, 33, a Frenchman of Moroccan descent, may have been the intended fifth hijacker of United Flight 93, the only September 11 flight with four hijackers aboard.

Moussaoui was in jail September 11, having been detained on an immigration violation since August when a Minnesota flight school reported suspicions to authorities.

The U.S. government alleges Moussaoui's actions leading up to the attack followed the same pattern as those of the hijackers: He took flying lessons, allegedly trained at an al Qaeda terrorist camp and allegedly received money from a man who also sent funds to the some of the hijackers.

Moussaoui's trial is scheduled to begin with jury selection September 30. He faces six conspiracy counts: conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries; to commit aircraft piracy; to destroy aircraft; to use weapons of mass destruction; to murder United States employees; and to destroy property.

Justice Department officials said prosecutors first recommended in February that capital punishment be pursued in the four death-eligible counts against Moussaoui and that Ashcroft weighed their recommendation in the weeks that followed.

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said that while his country stands "solidly" with the United States in the war on terrorism, any evidence France gives to American authorities "may not be used as the basis for seeking the death penalty, a verdict or sentence to that end."

Moussaoui's mother, Aicha el-Wafi, also denounced the decision to pursue the death penalty, saying her son "has not killed anyone, so I do not see how he is guilty of destroying America or whatever it is."

"In my opinion, my son is a scapegoat," she told reporters in Montpelier, France. "They found an Arab, a poor person."




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