Questioning of Jurors Begins in Moussaoui Penalty Trial
Thursday, February 16, 2006
A teacher told a federal judge yesterday that she believes members of al Qaeda are brainwashed. A government contractor said she feels a special connection with victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because her father died in a plane crash. A mortgage lender consulted a priest about whether he could, in good conscience, vote to put Zacarias Moussaoui to death.
All three are prospective jurors in the death penalty trial of Moussaoui, and they were questioned individually in the courtroom by the judge as jury selection began in earnest. Moussaoui is the only person convicted in the United States on charges stemming from the Sept. 11 attacks, and the federal court jury in Alexandria will decide whether he will live or die.
A surprise visitor to the courtroom was Moussaoui himself. U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema on Tuesday banned him from attending the remainder of jury selection after his latest outburst against his attorneys, the judge and the government.
The defendant walked slowly into the courtroom at 9:30 a.m., squinting at the jurors and sitting down at his own table behind his attorneys. Moussaoui remained quiet all day, aside from telling Brinkema that he wanted to leave at 12:30 p.m. to pray. The morning session concluded before then.
Brinkema did not explain why Moussaoui was allowed to attend, and a court spokesman declined to comment. But sources familiar with the case said Moussaoui had sent the judge a message from the Alexandria jail indicating that he wanted to attend jury selection and promising to behave. Brinkema did tell prospective jurors that Moussaoui might not be in court for the trial.
In all, 24 people were questioned, from a variety of professions and backgrounds. They were predominantly white. Of those, 15 were invited back for the next round and nine were excused, mostly for financial considerations and other hardships. Jury selection resumes today and continues until the trial begins March 6.
Moussaoui, 37, pleaded guilty in April to conspiracy charges in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Arlington County, a few miles from the courthouse. He said Osama bin Laden had instructed him to fly a plane into the White House but he denied that he was involved in the Sept. 11 hijackings.
Brinkema said she was determined to find jurors who had not prejudged a defendant known for his outbursts and hatred of the United States.
It was, at times, challenging.
The juror who said that al Qaeda members are brainwashed said she did so because "they believe America is the enemy . . . that's what they are taught and trained for.'' She also said her father worked for the U.S. Senate building that was targeted in the 2001 anthrax attacks, which she believes was related to Sept. 11.
The woman, a teacher identified only as juror No. 8 because the jury will be anonymous, said she could be impartial, and Brinkema allowed her to continue to the next phase of the selection process.
A man who used to work for the U.S. Navy at the Pentagon said a friend of his was working there Sept. 11, next to where the hijacked plane hit. "I remember him telling me it was very loud and it surprised him and he basically ran faster than he has ever run in his life,'' said the man, juror No. 5.
Defense lawyers objected, but Brinkema qualified him to proceed. "I'm not going to disqualify people just because they knew someone who worked at the Pentagon on 9/11,'' she said.
She also qualified the woman whose father died in the plane crash and the man who consulted his priest. He was one of several people who expressed qualms about the death penalty. One woman said she probably could not impose the ultimate punishment and was excused.
Despite the weighty nature of the case, there were moments of levity.
One federal government employee said he could handle being off work because "I don't think I'm that important.''
Another woman, a lawyer for the U.S. Marine Corps, was a former prosecutor who tried a case against Brinkema when the judge was a defense lawyer.
Who won? Brinkema asked.
"I think it came out in your favor,'' the woman said, to laughter in the courtroom. "My impression was that you did a very good job.'' Brinkema allowed the woman to stay.