ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Jurors weighing the fate of Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui were shown gruesome photographs Tuesday of bodies burned inside the Pentagon and heard from two determined military officers who crawled almost blindly through falling debris, choking smoke and searing heat to safety.
Despite Judge Leonie Brinkema's warning on Monday that too much highly emotional evidence could imperil a death sentence on appeal, prosecutors showed the most gut-wrenching evidence yet in a trial studded with horrific images. The images came from the mammoth military headquarters just a few miles from the courtroom.
In the third day of testimony from relatives of 9/11 victims, the jurors showed little emotion. One man discreetly wiped his face with a tissue; on earlier days as many as six of the 17 jurors and alternates did so.
After a three-minute bench conference to argue with the defense over what could be shown, prosecutors displayed photos of a charred body on a blue stretcher, another charred body sitting upright inside a wrecked Pentagon office, several charred bodies piled together inside another destroyed office and a small torso covered with ash on a blue stretcher. The mostly intact bodies had barely discernible facial features.
Each picture was displayed for a few seconds. Within minutes, the jury left for lunch.
Moments later with judge and jury gone, Moussaoui defiantly shouted to spectators as he was led out: "Burn all Pentagon next time."
Jurors also heard from two officers who may have been saved by their military training, Lt. Col. John Thurman, who was a major working on Army promotion policies on the Pentagon's second floor on 9/11, and Lt. Nancy McKeown, who was working on the first floor as chief weather forecaster for the Navy's top brass.
The impact of hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 hitting the Pentagon sounded like a bomb to Thurman and an earthquake to McKeown, but they both immediately dropped to the floor and rolled under their desks for cover as light fixtures, ceiling tiles, bookcases and file cabinets fell everywhere.
Both called out to co-workers and groped around in the dark as the lights in their windowless offices went off and hot black smoke filled the air.
McKeown never heard any response from the two young sailors in her office; they died that day. Thurman briefly reached two of the five co-workers in his office. One woman briefly held his belt, but neither could follow him crawling through debris. Three of the co-workers died.
At one point, both Thurman and McKeown thought they would die and that thought angered them.
Having crawled to one door only to find fire on the other side and seeing no easy way to reach the door on the opposite side of the room, Thurman felt he needed a nap. "That's when it hit me: I'm going to die," he testified, "and I got very angry. Angry that terrorists would take my life on the same day my parents were getting their first grandchild" (from his sister).
"I realized I had to get out. I pushed file cabinets with all of my strength and found an opening," Thurman said.
Having crawled around her office without finding her aides, McKeown said she thought: "Is this how it's supposed to end?"
"I got angry and called out again. My insides were on fire. It was hard to breathe," she testified, but she pushed toward a glimmer of light and rescue.
After a medically induced coma and hospital stay, Thurman said, "Today, I'm fine. ... I feel incredibly lucky; nothing fell on me. But there's guilt about getting the lucky break."
McKeown broke down describing how she took the body of one aide, Petty Officer Edward T. Earhart, to his family for a funeral. "Before turning him over, I checked to see his buttons were buttoned and his medals were straight," she said, weeping. "I stayed until he was buried and I presented the flag" to his relatives.
Now, her daughter is haunted by fear of losing her. "I must call her when I get to work and when I'm coming home," McKeown sobbed. Pentagon Police Sgt. Jose E. Rojas Jr. testified that when he and colleagues saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center on television, they rushed outside in time to see a mushroom cloud of fire over the Pentagon. Racing to the crash site, he could hear "people inside moaning, groaning and screaming" and told them to walk through the thick smoke toward his voice at a blown-out window.
He grabbed one man by the hands. But "he slipped back into the building because the skin came off his hands into my hands," Rojas testified. He had to reach in and dig his hands into the man's hands and pull him out while the man was screaming in pain. Rojas and his colleagues pulled nine people out; all but one badly burned woman survived.
Late in the day, the jury heard brief calls to air traffic control from the cockpit of United Flight 93, which ultimately crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers attempted to retake the plane. During the two calls, which came as the hijacking began at 9:28 a.m., a voice was heard saying: "Mayday! Mayday! ... Get out of here!"
Moussaoui pleaded guilty last year to conspiring with Al Qaeda to fly planes into U.S. buildings. A week ago, the jurors ruled him eligible for the death penalty even though he was in jail in Minnesota on 9/11. They decided that lies he told federal agents a month before the attacks led directly to at least one death that day by keeping agents from identifying and stopping some of the hijackers. Now they must decide whether he deserves execution or life in prison
Defense lawyers say the jury should spare Moussaoui's life because of his limited role in the attacks, evidence that he is mentally ill and because execution would only fulfill his dream of martyrdom. The defense has subpoenaed would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid, serving life in Colorado after a failed try to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001. In a surprise, Moussaoui testified Reid was to help him fly a fifth plane on 9/11 into the White House.
In a sealed brief, the government opposed the subpoena for Reid. Later in the day, Brinkema ordered that someone be brought to court for possible testimony, without saying who it was but she issued a writ normally used to produce people who are in custody so it seemed likely it was Reid. Whether he would actually testify remained to be seen.