ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- In a final twist to an already bizarre case, the last witness in the Zacarias Moussaoui trial yesterday described a secret, late-night jailhouse meeting in February where Moussaoui tried to strike a deal with prosecutors to cooperate with the government to save his life.
FBI Special Agent James Fitzgerald, one of the lead agents in the case, said Moussaoui summoned him and federal prosecutors to the Alexandria city jail in an attempt to persuade them that he was worth more to them alive than dead.
But the bargaining in the jail law library late on the evening of Feb. 6, a month before Moussaoui's trial began, broke down when prosecutors demanded that Moussaoui provide ''full and complete" cooperation and tell everything he knew about Al Qaeda, not just his role in the Sept. 11 conspiracy.
Fitzgerald testified that Moussaoui came away from the clandestine meeting empty-handed.
Though Moussaoui's lawyers have said he wants to die a martyr, he told the FBI and prosecutors that death in a prison execution chamber is not a fitting end for an avowed terrorist like himself.
''He stated it was different to die in battle, like an F-16 pilot," Fitzgerald recalled, ''than to die in jail, like in a toilet."
Fitzgerald was the concluding witness in a trial full of surprises.
A government aviation attorney was accused of improperly tampering with witnesses, prompting the judge to exclude all but one aviation expert from testifying and nearly gutting the government's case.
Then Moussaoui returned the favor: taking the stand in his own defense, he claimed that he was to fly a fifth plane into the White House on Sept. 11 and admitted the government's chief allegation -- that he lied to the FBI after his arrest in August 2001 so the terror plot could go forward.
Today, lawyers for both sides are to make closing arguments. Jurors then will begin deliberations.
Moussaoui pleaded guilty last April, so jurors' first task is to decide whether prosecutors proved that Moussaoui, a 37-year-old student pilot from France, is eligible for the death penalty.
The government contends he is because his failure to cooperate with the FBI in the weeks leading up to the attacks prevented agents from stopping the hijackings.
If all 12 jurors side with prosecutors, the trial then moves to a second phase to decide if Moussaoui is executed or spends the rest of his life in prison with no chance of parole. If they do not, the trial ends and Moussaoui automatically will be sentenced to life.
Earlier yesterday, defense lawyers played videos of Bush administration officials testifying before the 9/11 Commission in 2004, in which they admitted numerous lapses in the federal law enforcement network that summer of 2001. The defense argues that government ineptness, not Moussaoui's secrecy, prevented agents from uncovering the plot.
Moussaoui's lawyers also had summaries of testimony read to the jury from several Al Qaeda leaders confined outside this country. They generally described Moussaoui as an unreliable member of Al Qaeda, and contradicted his claim that he was to fly a plane into the White House or play any other role on Sept. 11.
One spoke of an odd plot that Moussaoui was trying to develop in Malaysia involving a truck bomb made from up to 40 pounds of ammonium nitrate.
''Moussaoui was very troubled, he was not right in the head," said Encep Nurjaman, a Southeast Asian operative better known as Hambali.
He said terrorists in Malaysia did purchase four pounds of the fertilizer, and were stuck with the bill when Moussaoui abruptly left Southeast Asia and eventually made his way to the United States and flight school.
But Fitzgerald stole the day when he testified as the government's single rebuttal witness. He described the jail-house negotiation with Moussaoui as a ''low-key, quiet, and civil meeting." Moussaoui opened the session by saying he wanted to testify in his trial -- but as a government witness.
At the time, and even up until he took the stand Monday, his court-appointed lawyers repeatedly had been pleading with him not to testify. They even urged the judge not to allow it.