By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 29, 2005
Hundreds of Northern Virginia residents will soon get a front-row seat at a key legal event in the war on terrorism.
Officials plan to summon 500 people to the federal courthouse in Alexandria, where a judge will determine whether they will sit on the jury in the death penalty phase of the prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person convicted in a U.S. case in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Under a recent order from U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, the court will mail summonses to prospective jurors in Alexandria and in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, Stafford and Fauquier counties. Recipients will be instructed to report to the courthouse Feb. 6, where they will fill out extensive background questionnaires and, a week later, be questioned about their responses.
It is the first step in jury selection for the death penalty trial of Moussaoui, a French citizen who pleaded guilty in April to conspiring with al Qaeda in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The 12-member jury will determine whether Moussaoui will be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison.
The process of selecting a jury is expected to take a month, far longer than most cases at the Alexandria federal courthouse, which is known for hosting high-profile proceedings. In the recent case of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali -- a Falls Church student charged with plotting with al Qaeda to kill President Bush -- jury selection took less than four days. Abu Ali was convicted and faces up to life in prison.
But picking a jury to decide Moussaoui's fate will be more complicated. The trial is expected to last several months, at a courthouse just miles from the Pentagon, and the jury pool is filled with government workers. The case has received extensive publicity.
Perhaps the most significant challenge will be finding jurors who can be objective about Sept. 11, one of the most traumatic events in American history. "September 11 is what sets this case apart from the others," said Thomas Munsterman, director of the Center for Jury Studies in Arlington, part of the National Center for State Courts.
"Who has not been touched by 9/11?" he said. "And then the question becomes how closely have you been touched by the event."
Prosecutors declined to comment on jury selection in the Moussaoui case. Defense lawyers expressed concern in a recent court filing that finding unbiased jurors will be difficult.
"The problem will be finding jurors who can set their pre-existing notions -- and emotions, for that matter -- about September 11 aside," the lawyers wrote.
Moussaoui, 37, pleaded guilty to six counts of conspiring with al Qaeda and said that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had personally instructed him to fly an airplane into the White House. But he denied he was planning to be a Sept. 11 hijacker and said his attack was to come later.
Moussaoui has been in the Alexandria jail for four years. He was arrested on immigration violations more than three weeks before Sept. 11. The conspiracy charges were brought against him in December 2001.
The trial has been delayed several times, most recently because of a constitutional showdown over access to top al Qaeda detainees. Moussaoui wanted to interview the captives, saying they could clear him. Brinkema agreed, but the government vehemently resisted on national security grounds.
Eventually, a federal appeals court ruled that Moussaoui could not interview the detainees but could present to the jury portions of statements they made to interrogators.
A spokesman for the U.S. District Court in Alexandria declined to say when summonses would be mailed for Moussaoui's trial. Under Brinkema's order, the 500 prospective jurors will come to the courthouse in two groups, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. After completing the questionnaire, they will be called back in small groups starting Feb. 15 to be questioned by the judge.
A pool of 85 prospective jurors who are deemed qualified to sit on the panel will be whittled down March 6; prosecutors and the defense can each use as many as 30 peremptory challenges to strike individual jurors. A panel of 12 jurors and six alternates will be selected, and opening statements are scheduled to begin the same day.