THE government had way too much riding on the outcome of the Zacarias Moussaoui case. The jury deliberating the fate of the terrorist wannabe understood that from the beginning.
No matter how desperate the Justice Department was to send the al-Qaeda collaborator to the death chamber, jurors rightly rejected the option as unwarranted.
History will likely recall the only person charged so far in a U.S. court in connection with the 9/11 hijackings as an obscure asterisk. His sentence of life in prison is far bigger than his trivial role in the terrorist plot ever was.
Having said that, being doomed to rot, all but forgotten in solitary confinement, is fitting punishment indeed for the self-aggrandizing Moussaoui.
U.S. Judge Leonie Brinkema aptly concluded his two-month sentencing trial with a pointed observation. "Mr. Moussaoui, you came here to be a martyr in a great big bang of glory," she said, "but to paraphrase the poet T.S. Eliot, instead you will die with a whimper."
Perfect. But not for the government. It had built up the small-time al-Qaeda operative as the pivotal player who allowed the terrorist attacks to proceed.
Moussaoui was in jail on immigration charges on Sept. 11 after raising suspicions at a flight school. The prosecution said because the convicted terrorist knew about the terror attacks a month before they happened he could have stopped them.
But the government said because he lied to federal agents Moussaoui deserved death.
And everything was riding on that verdict. The Justice Department had spent millions of dollars building up the highest profile case to come out of the war on terrorism.
It used scores of investigators to interview countless witnesses and more than anything wanted its pound of flesh with the ultimate penalty.
Government lawyers needed a victory after a series of trial and errors had left the Bush Administration with little to show for its legal battles over the war on terror.
Yet in the end jurors saw what the world did with the Frenchman who seized his 15 minutes of fame to exaggerate his role in 9/11 after denying any involvement in the attacks.
They saw him as the minor player he was and were not convinced, despite his grandstanding, that he deserved to die.
Justice was commendably served by a jury that sat through heart-rending testimony and emotional appeals for retribution. The fairness of the American judicial system even under such duress is profoundly reassuring.