America’s day in court

A FEDERAL JURY SPARED THE LIFE of admitted 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui on Wednesday, sending to prison the only man to stand trial in the U.S. for the deaths that day of nearly 3,000 Americans. Even if one supports capital punishment -- and this page emphatically does not -- it was the right decision.

By his own testimony, Moussaoui is an enemy of the United States. If there were any doubt that he welcomed the deaths of thousands on Sept. 11, 2001, his ranting on the witness stand removed it. He does not deserve to see the light of day again -- and he won’t under the jury’s sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of release.

But there were problems with the prosecution’s case. Moussaoui was in jail the day those planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and, thanks to the heroism of passengers, a Pennsylvania field rather than the U.S. Capitol. The government was thus forced to argue that if he had spoken freely after his arrest, investigators would have been able to avert the attacks. That was a chancy claim even before the judge excluded some prosecution witnesses because they had been improperly coached.

Then there was Moussaoui’s belated assertion at trial that he and convicted “shoe bomber” Richard Reid had planned to fly a plane into the White House on 9/11, a tale that seemed like a terrorist’s version of resume padding. Finally, the defendant’s bizarre behavior left doubts in the public mind about whether he was deranged or had a death wish -- or both. A death sentence under those circumstances could have endowed him with undeserved martyr status.

In sparing Moussaoui’s life, the jury resisted the temptation to treat him as a stand-in for the 9/11 hijackers. And it refused to succumb to the notion that a death sentence for Moussaoui was justified because it would provide “closure” to the families of those who were killed in the attacks. Some families surely will be pained by this outcome and will wonder whether Moussaoui was correct when he exulted after the verdict: “America, you lost. I won.” President Bush presumably had their disappointment in mind when he said that “evil will not have the final say.” But it is not a triumph for evil, or a loss for America, when ordinary Americans listen to the evidence and then do justice to the best of their ability. Just the opposite.