HAMBURG, Germany – Four American relatives of Sept. 11 (search) victims recalled their painful losses in a Hamburg (search) court Thursday, hoping to persuade the judges to give the maximum sentence to a Moroccan charged with helping the hijackers.
Deena Burnett, whose husband Tom Burnett fought with the hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93 (search) before it crashed in Pennsylvania, burst into tears as she told how his death had affected their three young daughters.
"I hear them talking to their dad by whispering to him at night," said Burnett, of Little Rock, Ark. "They stick crayon drawings to helium balloons and watch them drift up to heaven with their children's belief that an angel will take them to Tom."
Defendant Abdelghani Mzoudi averted his gaze from the Americans as he entered the courtroom, and showed no emotion during the nearly four hours of testimony.
As allowed under German law, more than 20 Americans have formally joined the prosecution as co-plaintiffs against Mzoudi, who is accused of more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder and membership in a terrorist organization. He is only the second Sept. 11 suspect to stand trial anywhere.
Mzoudi's friend, Mounir el Motassadeq (search), was convicted in February on the same charges and sentenced to the maximum 15 years in prison, a verdict the judges attributed in part to the emotional testimony of Burnett and other U.S. relatives. An appeal is pending.
Burnett said she cries every time she tells her husband's story, but that she felt it important for the court to hear the human side to a case that has been argued mostly on procedural terms.
"It's my way of fighting back, like Tom did," she said outside the courtroom.
The testimony seemed to have its desired effect, with presiding Judge Klaus Ruehle telling the relatives afterward: "No matter what outcome here, you can be certain that the impression you created has affected us."
Mzoudi, who turns 31 on Saturday, is accused of providing logistical support to the Hamburg Al Qaeda cell that included suicide pilots Mohamed Atta (search), Marwan al-Shehhi (search) and Ziad Jarrah.
Prosecutors say he took care of financial transactions when cell members were out of the country and helped conceal them from authorities on their return to Germany.
Mzoudi denies the charges. His attorneys say that while he was close to the members of the cell, he was unaware of their plans. All witnesses have now been called in his trial, and a verdict is expected in the next month.
Debra Burlingame, of Pelham Manor, N.Y., urged the maximum penalty for Mzoudi. Her brother, Charles Burlingame, was the pilot of the plane that hit the Pentagon and was killed by the hijackers before it crashed.
"He always wanted to do the right thing, and he was slaughtered like an animal," she told the five-judge panel. "In view of the nature of the crimes the defendant is accused of aiding and abetting, I respectfully ask that if he is convicted, he be sentenced to the maximum penalty available, 15 years. ... That is less than two days in prison for each victim."
A man from Boston whose mother, Sonia Morales Puopolo, died in one of the flights that hit the World Trade Center recalled the devastating duty of having to tell father and siblings. Dominic Puopolo Jr. said he swore to make sure people understood what the attacks meant to individuals.
Wearing a picture of her firefighter son Carl Molinaro on a gold locket, Joan Molinaro of New York described how his death saving people from the World Trade Center haunts her every day.
"I have watched my son die hundreds of times from the tapes on TV," she said as a woman in the gallery wept. "I still yell for Carl to run faster and I still search the faces in the crowd and hope this time he will get out but he never does."