WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal prosecutors are preparing to seek the death penalty against Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to government officials and a letter sent by prosecutors to victims' families.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has not given final approval to prosecutors to push for the death penalty, but the Justice Department has until March 29 to make a decision, according to two officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In the meantime, prosecutors are getting ready to argue that the man they allege conspired and trained alongside the Sept. 11 airliner hijackers should be put to death.
The government's intention to seek capital punishment was first disclosed in a letter from U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty and lead prosecutor David J. Novak to dozens of victims' families.
The letter, dated March 7, said that if the Justice Department gave final approval, ``the Moussaoui case will become a capital prosecution, meaning that the United States will be asking the jury to find that defendant Moussaoui should be executed should he be found guilty.''
Moussaoui, 33, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, is charged with conspiring with Osama bin Laden, along with the 19 alleged hijackers and others, to commit the Sept. 11 attacks. His trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 30.
On the day of the terrorist attacks, Moussaoui was in a prison cell. He had been arrested in Minnesota in August on visa violations after flight school instructors became suspicious.
Four of the six counts brought against Moussaoui carry a maximum sentence of death.
The letter said prosecutors would seek out 30 families to testify about how the terrorist attacks affected them. This testimony would be needed during the punishment phase of the trial, should Moussaoui be found guilty, the letter said.
``The individual stories of approximately 30 victims ... will serve as a microcosm of all,'' it said. ``Obviously, we cannot tell the story of every victim; otherwise, the trial would last forever.''
Stephen Push, whose wife, Lisa Raines, was killed when a hijacked plane hit the Pentagon, is among those who received the letter.
``The prosecutors have been extremely helpful in terms of keeping us informed and I plan to help out in anyway I can,'' Push, of Great Falls, Va., said Monday.
Asked whether Moussaoui should get the death penalty, Push hesitated and then said, ``That is not for me to say. That is for the judge and the jury to determine.''
Ashcroft is a longtime and staunch supporter of the death penalty.
Government officials said defense lawyers were so certain that the death penalty would be sought that they had declined to attend a Justice Department hearing during which they could have tried to persuade the government not to ask for death, according to The New York Times, which first reported on the government's intentions in Tuesday's editions.
In France, Moussaoui's brother said Monday that he was refusing to cooperate with a U.S. official involved in the prosecution.
Moussaoui's mother, Aicha Moussaoui, skipped a Tuesday appointment for questioning by the same official, police said.
The official was identified by French judicial authorities as being from federal court in Alexandria, Va., where Moussaoui was indicted. He traveled to the southern French city of Montpellier to speak to the family.