Moussaoui's Prosecutors Draft Slew of Questions for Jury Pool

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 29, 2005

It's 31 pages of Terrorism 101, a pop quiz of sorts on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Do you know who Osama bin Laden is? How about Muhammad Atef, Mohamed Atta or Khalid Sheik Mohammed? Ever flown an airplane? Been to the Middle East?

The government wants to know -- all in the name of selecting an unbiased jury for the coming death penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui.

The Justice Department's proposed questionnaire for potential jurors, filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, contains all of those questions and many, many more. There are 89 questions, ranging from requests for highly specific biographical data to queries about whether the candidate ever worked in an airport or socializes "with any people of Arab descent."

Legal experts said the level of detail is extraordinary and reflects the complexity and high stakes of the Moussaoui prosecution. Moussaoui, the only person convicted in a U.S. case stemming from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, will go on trial to determine whether he should be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison. Jury selection will start Feb. 6.

"This is like the normal jury selection process on steroids. It's awfully extensive," said Andrew G. McBride, a former federal prosecutor in Alexandria who has closely followed the case.

McBride said the government is trying to "ferret out" potential jurors who oppose the death penalty or those who may tell the judge they could vote to impose death but "when the moment comes, they are not able to do so." He said jury selection is extremely important to both sides, because "most prosecutors and defense lawyers believe this is where capital cases are won or lost."

Edward B. MacMahon Jr., an attorney for Moussaoui, would not comment on the government's questionnaire but said the defense will file its own proposed questions. "I think everyone knows that picking a jury in this case is going to be a unique endeavor," he said.

Federal prosecutors in Alexandria would not comment.

Moussaoui, 37, pleaded guilty in April to six counts of conspiring with al Qaeda and said that bin Laden, its leader, personally instructed him to fly an airplane into the White House. But he denied that he was planning to be a Sept. 11 hijacker and said his attack was to come later.

At the trial, prosecutors plan to argue that Moussaoui should die because he lied to the FBI about his knowledge of the Sept. 11 hijackings when he was arrested a month earlier, the government said in recent court filings.

The defense plans to argue that Moussaoui knew little about Sept. 11 and that the government would not have acted on any information because it ignored numerous warnings about bin Laden's intentions.

The proposed jury questionnaire is the first step in a process known as voir dire, in which the judge examines potential jurors to see if they can sit on the case. After the defense files its own questionnaire, U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema will determine the final list.

Brinkema said in a recent order that 500 people will be summoned to the federal courthouse in Alexandria starting Feb. 6 to fill out the questionnaires. After both sides review the answers, Brinkema and the lawyers will question jurors individually.

Jury questionnaires are not used in most criminal cases in Alexandria federal court, lawyers said, unless they are death penalty cases or involve extensive pretrial publicity. Detailed questionnaires have been used in other high-profile terrorism cases, including last week's conviction of Falls Church student Ahmed Omar Abu Ali on charges of conspiring to kill President Bush.

The government's filing says the Moussaoui questionnaire is intended to ensure that jurors "impartially decide this case based upon the evidence." It adds that prosecutors do not intend "to inquire unnecessarily into personal matters."

Among the 89 questions on the form are requests for biographical data, including the jurors' names, ages and marital status; the educational level and occupation of each of their children; their religion and how often they worship; and whether they belong to groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association and the Rotary Club.

Because the case involves airline hijackings, the questionnaire asks whether the potential jurors have ever worked as commercial pilots or trained to become pilots and whether they or their spouses have ever worked in an airport.

Jurors will be asked questions about the death penalty and will indicate on a long list of suspected terrorists whether the names are familiar. They include Atta, the lead hijacker on Sept. 11; Mohammed, the former al Qaeda operations chief and Sept. 11 planner; and Atef, a senior al Qaeda figure who was killed in 2001 during a U.S. bombing raid in Afghanistan.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company