Sentencing a Terrorist, Searching for Truth


By Stephen Collins '74

As presiding judge at the high-profile trial that sentenced 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui to life in prison, Leonie M. Brinkema came to appreciate the Henry Fonda character—the one man in the 11-to-one vote that hung the jury and spared Moussaoui’s life.

Brinkema, U.S. District Court judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, received Colby’s 2008 Morton A. Brody Distinguished Judicial Service Award April 6. Recounting her experiences in that trial, she said, “One of the saddest realities I’ve had to confront in the Moussaoui case in particular is that my government did not always tell me the truth.”

During the trial the U.S. government refused to acknowledge that it had key witnesses in custody, even though it was reported in the news and Moussaoui wanted them to testify. The government refused video depositions and claimed no recordings existed.

When the jury was not unanimous and Moussaoui’s life was spared, Judge Brinkema told jurors she thought they had done the right thing. Still later, she encountered the one holdout and told him he had done the American legal system “an extraordinary service.”

“If he had voted for the death penalty, and Moussaoui were now sentenced to death, and we now know that these key witnesses are sitting in Guantanamo, the pressure on the legal system would have been horrendous. What it would have posed for our legal system I just shudder to think.”

Audio of Judge Brinkema’s complete remarks is online.
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