Judge shares 9/11 trial experience

When “The Death Guy” came to give a presentation at the College of William and Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law, the audience was prepared for a killer speech.

Judge David J. Novak, also known as “The Death Guy” for his role in numerous death penalty cases, visited the law school Jan. 22 to give a presentation about the prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and is thus far the only convicted plotter. Novak is a U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia and had an important part in the Moussaoui prosecution as an attorney.

Novak began his speech by providing some basic facts about the Moussaoui case. Osama bin Laden had Moussaoui enrolled in jet training so he could fly a plane during the terrorist attacks, but because Moussaoui was involved in suspicious activity, flight instructor Clancy Prevost began an investigation. Despite evidence demonstrating that Moussaoui was most likely a terrorist, he was arrested Aug. 16, 2001 by the FBI for another reason: His visa had expired.

Had Moussaoui told the truth to the FBI when he was questioned about his terrorist involvement, the 9/11 attacks might have been prevented, and Moussaoui may not have been sentenced. Instead, Novak said Moussaoui told them he wanted to be a recreational pilot and that money from an import/export business was funding his education.

“When somebody told me they were involved in the import/export business, that’s like putting on neon lights [saying] ‘I am a crook,’” Novak said. “He can’t describe who his friends are, where he [got] the money and all this kind of stuff, and it’s just lie after lie after lie.”

Even though all the evidence pointed to his involvement in a terrorist organization, Moussaoui was in prison on Sept. 11, so he was not directly involved in the attacks that day.

This meant that Novak needed to attack him on other grounds. Novak convinced the jurors that 9/11 could have been prevented had Moussaoui been honest with the FBI during the investigation. To put the devastating effects of the terrorist attacks in perspective for the jurors, Novak met with families who had lost loved ones on 9/11, inviting them to express their views.

“Our job as litigators is to tell a story, and we had to tell the story of what happened on 9/11 in the most efficient way we could,” Novak said.

At the end of the trial, Moussaoui did not receive the death penalty because one juror opposed the punishment. In capital punishment cases, a single juror may prevent the death penalty for the sentence to be halted. Instead, Moussaoui is serving a life sentence in prison.

Greg Parker ’16 shared his thoughts on Novak’s presentation.

“I definitely learned a lot,” Parker said. “I didn’t really know too much in depth about 9/11, and he helped me learn more about it.”

Parker thought that Moussaoui had crossed the line and deserved the death penalty.

“I thought [Novak] explained [the death penalty] very well,” Parker said. “There needs to be a line drawn about who gets the death penalty and who doesn’t.”

Kathleen Imbriglia J.D. ’14, president of the Human Security Law Society, enjoyed Novak’s presentation.

“I thought it [Novak’s presentation] was absolutely wonderful,” Imbriglia said. “There were obviously people who worked very intimately with the case, and we saw the human element to it … that was great how he set everything up so that it was easy for all of us to follow and see exactly what was going on.”

Imbriglia said that the Human Security Law Society is planning to bring more speakers of Novak’s caliber to the College this spring.

At the end of his presentation, Novak played sound clips of communication that occurred as the planes were hijacked by terrorists. Shouts of “mayday” were heard from one plane and flight attendant Betty Ong explained that someone had been stabbed in the business class section. Passenger CeeCee Lyles left a message on the answering machine for her husband and children telling them that she loved them and hoped to see their faces again. She never did.

According to Novak, stories such as these are what sent Moussaoui to prison.

“I believe the hidden secret is not the quantity of people that were killed but the quality,” Novak said. “Think about the folks that were on Flight 93 who rushed to take over that plane. They saved the White House … One of the guys was about to be a surgeon general. There were scientists on there who were about to invent cures to different diseases. And so one of the reasons I like to give this talk is to remind folks that this case is not about the number 3,000. It’s about specific, very wonderful and special people who were murdered, and I think sometimes they lose sight of that.”


  1. Just curious: Did anyone ask Judge Novak about the claims of the 9/11 Truth Movement, which contradict much of the “facts” he accepts as established?


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