NEW YORK, June 12 -- A federal jury sentenced a Saudi Arabian man convicted of bombing the U.S. embassy in Kenya three years ago to life in prison without parole today after deadlocking over whether to impose the death penalty in part out of concern it would create a martyr.
The decision came as a blow to the United States in its first attempt to seek a death sentence for terrorism committed against U.S. citizens in a foreign country.
"The government sought the death penalty because it concluded that it was the just punishment for this defendant and his crime," U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White said. "But the imposition of the death penalty is uniquely a matter for the jury to decide and we respect their verdict."
After five days of deliberations, the jury of seven women and five men said it was unable to agree that Mohamed Rashed Daoud Owhali, 24, should be put to death for his role in helping to manufacture and deliver the truck bomb used against the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi on Aug. 7, 1998. The attack, and a near-simultaneous bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killed 224 people, 12 of them Americans, and wounded 4,600 others.
Owhali and three other men were convicted May 30 of plotting the embassy attacks as part of what U.S. prosecutors allege is a terrorist conspiracy led by millionaire Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be living in Afghanistan.
Ten of the 12 jurors -- whose identities have not been made public -- noted on a verdict sheet used to reach their decision that they believed executing Owhali could "make him a martyr" for terrorist groups. Nine said the death penalty would not ease the victims' suffering, while smaller numbers justified their positions on other grounds, including some who concluded that life in prison is a greater punishment and others who said he should not be put to death because of his early indoctrination into a radical brand of Islam.
"We the jury do not unanimously find that the death sentence is appropriate," the jury decided. "We understand that the consequence of this is that Owhali will be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of release."
The sentence followed more than three months of testimony in the trial and the most extensive FBI investigation ever on foreign soil. It came one day after the jury sent a note to Judge Leonard Sand indicating that there was not unanimous support for the death penalty.
The jury will begin considering Tuesday whether to impose the death penalty on a Tanzanian man, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, 27, who participated in the Dar es Salaam bombing.
Mohamed and Owhali are among four men convicted last month on 302 counts of murder, perjury and conspiracy to kill Americans outside the United States. Wadih Hage, 40, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Lebanon, and Mohamed Saddiq Odeh, 35, of Jordan, face life sentences for their crimes. A fifth alleged member of the conspiracy, Mahmoud Mahmud Salim, is in custody in New York awaiting trial.
Some counter-terrorism experts said the jury's decision could aid the battle against terrorism in the long run. They argued that Owhali's execution would not only have failed to deter future terrorist attacks but also could have inspired other Islamic militants to strike out against the United States to avenge his death.
Paul R. Pillar, the CIA's national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, said the jury's decision could make it easier for many European allies to increase cooperation with the United States in fighting terrorism. A number of European allies, Pillar said, are prohibited from extraditing suspected terrorists to the United States or cooperating in terrorist investigations when they could face the death penalty. This decision, he said, could help ease those concerns.
South Africa's constitutional court ruled earlier this month that the South African government's decision to surrender Mohamed to the FBI in 1999 is unlawful because South Africa does not have a death penalty. Judge Sand said today that the jury can weigh the South African court ruling in determining whether to impose the death penalty on Mohamed.
Owhali, wearing a white skull cap, sat calmly in the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Manhattan as the verdict was read, then turned to his attorney, Fredrick Cohn, and asked, "Are you happy?"
Several feet away, Sue Bartley, who lost her husband and son in the bombing, wiped her eyes. "The ultimate sentencing was not what we hoped to have. At least we can be peaceful with the fact that Owhali will not be free to harm anyone else," Bartley said later.
Other relatives of victims also expressed disappointment.
"I know my daughters and I would have been given the opportunity to experience a certain sense of closure were Mr. Owhali sentenced to death," said Howard Kavaler, a U.S. foreign service officer whose wife, Prabhi, died in the bombing. "We are extremely disappointed with the fact that the jury accepted some or all of the patently false and dishonest arguments advanced by the defense to save the life of a convicted mass murderer."
Staff writers Vernon Loeb and Dan Eggen in Washington contributed to this report.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company