An anonymous commenter writes in with the following question:
My request is, perhaps, a bit presumptious, but could you possibly blog about the Moussaoui case? I’d be very interested in your views. I’m particularly interested in your thoughts on the basic premise of the government’s case. If I understand correctly, they need to demonstrate that Moussaoui did something that caused someone to get killed. The government seems to be attempting to meet that burden by arguing that Moussaoui lied to authorities and had he told the truth, 9/11 could have been prevented. This seems a slick attempt to elide two different things. Wouldn’t the government have to show that his actual lies contributed to 9/11 i.e., that the government somehow relied on that he told them in a way that made it possible for 9/11 to happen? Had he been silent, he would not have been “telling the truth” either but his mere silence would not qualify him for the death penalty.
I haven’t been following the Moussaoui case very closely, but I’d be happy to give some amateurish and somewhat uncertain thoughts and then open it up for comments.
The first thing to keep in mind is that Moussaoui did not plead guilty to participating in the 9/11 attacks. He pled guilty to a conspiracy to engage in an act of terrorism, not an act of terrorism itself. A conspiracy is an agreement with another person or persons to engage in a criminal act, even if the act doesn’t take place. In the case of Moussaoui, he pled guilty to agreeing to participate in a plot to hijack planes. As I understand it, Moussaoui hoped and planned to be a hijacker, but the Al Qaeda higher-ups didn’t think he was up to the job so they sidelined him. Moussaoui is therefore guilty of conspiracy (the agreement), but not the hijacking plans that went forward (the 9/11 attacks).
Moussoui pled guilty to the conspiracy count, an offense for which he is death-penalty eligible, and now the government is attempting to make the case that Moussaoui deserves the death penalty. As I understand it, the question at this stage is (in simple terms) just how bad the case is — in particular, whether the aggravating circumstances of the crime outweigh the mitigating circumstances. The government therefore isn’t trying to show that Moussaoui “caused” the 9/11 attacks himself. Rather, they are arguing that the circumstances of Moussoui’s involvement in the conspiracy were particularly egregious, and the egregiousness is that Moussaoui sat by and let the plot unfold, leading to the deaths of 3,000 people when he could have stopped the conspiracy from being successful.
At least that’s my understanding of the argument. If I’m off here, I hope commenters will let me know.