'Buried Alive' ; out of America Special So Said Zacarias Moussaoui's Mother as He Was Sentenced to Life without Parole Last Week. but in Not Putting Him to Death, US Justice Has Won an Important Victory
Cornwell, Rupert, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
If the macabre four-year soap opera that was the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui had a hero, it was most certainly not the accused - the ranting, taunting member of al-Qa'ida whose precise role in the 9/11 plot remains a mystery even now. Nor was it the court- appointed legal team given the well-nigh impossible task of defending him.
Nor was it even the relatives of the victims on that terrible day in 2001, who told their heartbreaking stories' nor the brave passengers of United Airlines flight 93, whose uprising against the hijackers was preserved in the wrenching cockpit recording played publicly for the first time during the trial's final penalty stage. Nor was it even the jury, who gave the lie to the world's image of America as a country that sees capital punishment as the solution to every criminal problem.
No, the hero, or rather heroine, was a diminutive elderly woman barely 5ft 2ins tall, her greying hair pulled back into a school- matronly bun, peering out over spectacles halfway down her nose. Leonie Brinkema was the federal judge whose lot was to conduct one of America's highest-profile and most sensitive trials of recent times, watched around the world, and featuring a defendant determined to turn the event into a theatre show for the benefit of himself and his malign cause.
Never, even when facing the direst provocation, did she lose control of proceedings. And when everything was finally over on Thursday - after she formally sentenced Moussaoui to the term of life in jail without parole the previous day - she found the perfect words.
"You came here to be a martyr and to die in a big bang of glory," she told the 38-year-old French-Moroccan terrorist, who had pleaded guilty in 2005 to conspiring with al-Qa'ida in the attacks which killed 3,000 people. "But to paraphrase the poet TS Eliot, you will die with a whimper." Whimper is not the word one would associate with Moussaoui, whose erratic outbursts and brazen histrionics have driven even his own defence team to distraction. But whimper is an exaggeration when applied to what will be heard from Moussaoui for the rest of his natural life.
By the time you read this, he will probably already have been transferred to the bleakest, most secure federal prison in the US, the "Supermax" penitentiary near Florence, Colorado, known, as "the Alcatraz of the Rockies". In the words of his mother, this is where Moussaoui will be "buried alive". He will join some of the country's most famous convicted criminals. Among them are the "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, as well as Terry Nichols, the accomplice of Timothy McVeigh in the 1995 Oklahoma bombing that, until 9/11, was the deadliest terrorist act on US soil.
Richard Reid, the British-born "shoe bomber", is there, as is Robert Hanssen, the former high-ranking FBI official who spied for the Soviet Union and Russia for 15 years, and Ramzi Yousef, who plotted the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. But Moussaoui will see little of them.
He will spend 23 hours a day in a cell cast out of concrete, measuring some 7ft by 11ft. It has a concrete bed, an immovable concrete stool and desk, fitted with a small black and white TV that carries a few selected channels and closed-circuit classes and religious services. A narrow four-inch window offers a view on an inner courtyard.
For the first years at least, he will have no contact with his fellow prisoners. His only visitors will be his lawyers. Each time he is allowed out of his cell, it will be in shackles. And so it will be for ever, under a life sentence without possibility of parole that is perhaps even worse than death. …