Alexandria, Va. Al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui escaped the death penalty Wednesday as a jury decided he deserved life in prison instead for his role in the bloodiest terrorist attack in U.S. history. "America, you lost," Moussaoui taunted.
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 Sept. 11, 2001.
Three jurors said Moussaoui had only limited knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot, and three described his role in the attacks as minor, if he had any role at all.
Moussaoui, as he was led from the courtroom after the 15-minute hearing, said: "America, you lost. ... I won." He clapped his hands as he was escorted away.
Some victims' families said he got what he deserved.
Carie Lemack, whose mother, Judy Larocque, died on hijacked American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center, said her mom didn't believe in the death penalty and would have been glad Moussaoui was sentenced to life. "This man was an al-Qaida wannabe who could never put together the 9/11 attacks," Lemack said. "He's a wannabe who deserves to rot in jail."
But Patricia Reilly, who lost her sister Lorraine Lee in the New York attacks, was deflated. "I guess in this country you can kill 3,000 people and not pay with your life," she said. "I feel very much let down by this country."
From the White House, President Bush said the verdict "represents the end of this case but not an end to the fight against terror." He said Moussaoui got a fair trial and the jury spared his life, "which is something that he evidently wasn't willing to do for innocent American citizens."
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 needle Americans and mock the pain of the victims' families.
Judge Leonie Brinkema was to hand down the life sentence Thursday morning, bound by the jury's verdict. Offering assurance to the losing side, she told prosecutors: "The government always wins when justice is done." Moussaoui smiled at that.
It was a stinging defeat for the Justice Department and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, a former federal prosecutor in Alexandria who was overseeing the case. He said afterward, "The jury has spoken and we respect and accept that verdict."
Moussaoui is expected to spend the rest of his life at the federal maximum-security prison in Florence, Colo.
In Paris, his mother, Aicha El Wafi, told France-Info radio: "I feel nothing. I am dead, because my son was wrongly convicted."
The jury did not reach the unanimity required for a death sentence against the man who claimed a direct role in the Sept. 11 attacks even though he was in jail at the time on immigration charges.
During the trial, no one contested the contention that Moussaoui came to the United States intending to do harm and that he received flight training toward that goal. But his lawyers contended he was an al-Qaida outcast who was not trusted with the knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot.
Outside the courthouse, defense attorney Gerald Zerkin said of the jurors: "It was obvious that they thought his role in 9/11 was not very great and that played a significant role in their decision."
The jurors agreed unanimously Moussaoui "knowingly created a grave risk of death" for more than the intended victims of Sept. 11 and committed his acts with "substantial planning" - accepting two of the aggravating factors necessary for a death sentence.
But they did not give sufficient weight to those findings to reach a death sentence, balancing them against mitigating factors offered by the defense. No jurors, however, accepted defense arguments that Moussaoui was mentally ill or that he wished to be executed to achieve the radical Islamic vision of martyrdom.
When the verdict was announced, Moussaoui showed no visible reaction and sat slouched in his chair, refusing to stand with his defense team. He had declined to cooperate with his court-appointed lawyers throughout the trial.
When the jurors came into the room, a couple of them looked directly at Moussaoui but most did not, looking at the judge instead. They all wore sober expressions. One dark-haired young man shook his head no before the verdict was read.
When the judge asked the jurors if their verdict was the same on all three counts, the forewoman, a high school math teacher, was joined by several other jurors in answering, "Yes."
The verdict was received with silence in the packed courtroom, where one row was lined with victims' families.
The jurors were divided on the 23 mitigating factors in the case: None was moved by the fact that top al-Qaida operatives in U.S. custody are not facing death penalty prosecutions, but three cited racism that Moussaoui faced as a child of Moroccan descent.
The closest the jurors came to unanimity in finding mitigating factors was on two questions involving his troubled childhood. On the first count of conspiracy to commit international terrorism, nine cited his unstable early childhood including stays in orphanages and a lack of emotional and financial support, and nine also cited physical and emotional abuse by his father.
But on the two other counts - plotting to destroy aircraft and to use weapons of mass destruction - those two family factors received less support: eight and seven and seven and six, respectively. Those were the only differences in the verdicts on the three counts.
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 Sept. 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 U.S. 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 Sept. 11, deserved to die.
The case broke new ground in the understanding of Sept. 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.