WASHINGTON – Federal prosecutors proposed scaling back testimony from Sept. 11 victims and relatives that will be used to help decide whether Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States in connection with the terrorist attacks, receives life in prison or the death penalty.
In a court filing, the prosecutors said Tuesday they cannot possibly call all of the witnesses who want to testify about the 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people and injured thousands more when 19 Al Qaeda hijackers crashed four commercial jets at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania.
"Several hundred victims expressed a desire to testify about the impact of the crime during the penalty phase of this case," the prosecutors wrote. "The government believes that having several hundred victims testify ... would both unduly complicate and prolong the proceedings and, therefore, is impracticable."
Instead, the prosecutors are asking U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema to approve their plan to call "a representative sample" of about 45 witnesses to testify about the loss they suffered on Sept. 11.
Lorie Van Auken, whose husband was killed at the World Trade Center, said she is ambivalent about prosecutors' proposal. "I don't know what it is that they are doing," she said. "I certainly know that they didn't do a good job of thwarting 9/11 so I don't know if they are going to do a good job of prosecuting 9/11."
Moussaoui, 37, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, pleaded guilty in April to six conspiracy charges. He insists he was not part of the Sept. 11 plot but was in the United States taking flight lessons to prepare for a second wave of attacks.
Jury selection for the penalty part of the case is scheduled to begin Feb. 6 in federal court in Alexandria, Va. Brinkema wants testimony to begin by March 6.
"Throughout the litigation of this case, the government has made unprecedented efforts to protect the rights of victims in this case," the prosecutors wrote.
Those efforts have included notifying about 8,000 people — victims or their relatives identified by prosecutors — of every significant development in the case, they said. The prosecutors also said they have told victims about their decision to seek a limit on their testimony.
Prosecutors said they plan to present evidence of everyone who died on Sept. 11 by name and photograph. But they want to use only about 45 witnesses "to convey properly the devastation caused on that infamous day."
They said those witnesses represent a cross-section — with respect to race, religion, economic status and occupation — of victims injured or killed on Sept. 11.
Because Moussaoui has already admitted guilt, the jury will only consider his punishment.
Brinkema has divided the sentencing trial into two parts. First, prosecutors will try to persuade jurors that the FBI would have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks if Moussaoui had told federal agents what he knew about Al Qaeda's desire to fly planes into U.S. buildings. If the jury disagrees with prosecutors, Moussaoui will receive life in prison. If jurors agree with prosecutors, they will decide whether he should be executed.
Moussaoui was in custody on immigration violations in Minnesota when the four jets were crashed. He said he was in training to hijack a 747 jet and fly it into the White House if the U.S. government refused to release Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian cleric. Rahman, known as "the blind sheikh," is serving life in prison for crimes related to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 plots against New York landmarks.