Federal Judge Says it's 'Amazing' 9/11 Culprits in Custody Not 'Brought to Justice'

A behind-the-scenes glimpse into the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person ever convicted in a U.S. court in connection with the September 11 attacks, revealed Thursday how difficult the case was to prosecute.

The lead prosecutor, Rob Spencer, presiding U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema and Moussaoui's lawyer, Ed MacMahon, agreed in an online panel that despite the case's challenges, it demonstrated how the judicial system can provide closure.

Ramzi bin al-Shibh or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, accused September 11 participants who are still detained at Guantanamo, have yet to be brought to trial.

"It's amazing to me that the rest of the culprits in this case have not been brought to justice," Brinkema said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Zacarias Moussaoui
A prosecutor, defense attorney and the presiding judge on the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person convicted in a U.S. court of a role in the September 11 attacks, revisited the case during an online panel. This undated file photo provided by the Sherburne County (Minnesota) Sheriff Office shows Moussaoui. Sherburne County, Minn., Sheriff's Office/AP, File

Spencer recalled the battles he and others in the Justice Department fought to keep Moussaoui in civilian courts at a time when military prosecutors and others wanted him to face a tribunal at Guantanamo Bay.

"When things weren't looking rosy for us on the prosecution, we would joke to each other that you could hear the Black Hawk helicopter coming to pick him up and take him to Gitmo," Spencer recalled Thursday during an online panel hosted by federal prosecutors in Virginia. The forum was part of a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Brinkema, who presided over the case, said there were points during the trial that she and her clerks believed prosecutors wouldn't even clear the first hurdle with the jury and be able to prove that Moussaoui was legally eligible for the death penalty.

"And then Moussaoui took the stand," Brinkema said.

He claimed that he was supposed to have hijacked a fifth plane and flown it into the White House, a claim he later recanted. And on cross-examination, he reveled in the deaths, mocking victims and family members.

"He basically just blew their defense out of the water," Brinkema said. "Once he started talking, I thought, 'He just lost them [the jury]."

Moussaoui was arrested in August 2001, before the attacks, when his efforts to obtain advanced flight training drew suspicion. He was charged in December as being a member of the al-Qaida conspiracy that carried out the attacks that killed 3,000 people.

It took years to work through various pretrial procedural issues, including a period where Moussaoui served as his own lawyer and filed handwritten screeds against the judge and others under the guise of legal motions. Appellate courts weighed in several times on how to handle classified evidence, including statements from al-Qaida leaders like Mohammed, which were obtained under enhanced interrogation techniques that many said were equivalent to torture.

Moussaoui actually pleaded guilty to the charges against him, so the 2006 trial was simply to determine whether his sentence would be life in prison or death. In the first phase of the trial, prosecutors had to prove that Moussaoui's role in the conspiracy led to the deaths of September 11 victims, making him eligible for the death penalty.

Once he was determined to be eligible, the jury then considered whether he deserved the death penalty.

The jury found him eligible for execution, but one of 12 jurors voted for life in prison rather than execution. That was enough to keep Moussaoui off death row; he's serving a life sentence in Colorado.

MacMahon, one of Moussaoui's court-appointed lawyers, recalled that the only viable strategy was to tell the jury that Moussaoui was embellishing his role within al-Qaida and that executing him would only give him the martyrdom he craved.

Moussaoui's exact role in the September 11 conspiracy remains imprecise. In broad strokes, Spencer said, Moussaoui's guilt was obvious: He was receiving flight training that he had no rational reason to be taking, and he received $10,000 from bin al-Shibh, a key member of the September 11 plot, a month before the attack.

Spencer said prosecutors believed Moussaoui was to serve as a backup pilot to Ziad Jarrah, the Flight 93 pilot who left the U.S. in summer 2001 to visit his girlfriend and may have been having second thoughts about participating.

"I don't know what role, if any, he would have served on 9/11 or perhaps a follow-on plot," Spencer said. "We never had to answer that question."

Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Raj Parekh, who moderated Thursday's panel, called the Moussaoui prosecution "one of the most significant in our nation's history.

"We are holding this event not only to share the lessons of the Moussaoui case but also to recognize and reflect upon the role of the justice system in responding to the tragic events of September 11," he said.