By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 25, 2006
The federal judge overseeing the death penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui yesterday finished qualifying a pool of 86 prospective jurors, setting the stage for testimony to begin March 6.
On that day, prosecutors and defense lawyers will reduce the pool to 12 jurors and six alternates through peremptory, or unexplained, strikes. They will then make opening statements in the trial of the only person convicted or charged in the United States in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The potential jurors -- 48 men and 38 women -- include schoolteachers, stay-at-home mothers and government workers. About 20 have acknowledged some connection to the Sept. 11 hijackings, including some who attended victims' funerals.
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 Sept. 11.
The jury will decide whether he lives.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema initially barred Moussaoui from attending jury selection after his repeated courtroom outbursts against his attorneys, the judge and the government. But Moussaoui was allowed to return after sending the judge a message from jail indicating that he would behave, sources familiar with the case have said.
Wearing a green prison uniform and a white knit cap, Moussaoui remained quiet over the seven days that Brinkema questioned jurors individually. The only hint of his previous behavior came when he left the courtroom in the custody of U.S. marshals. On Thursday, Moussaoui looked directly at a group of reporters and muttered, "God bless Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda."
In her effort to screen out potential bias, Brinkema ruled that some prospective jurors were too close to the events of Sept. 11. One man described Thursday how his sister's best friend's son was killed at the World Trade Center. "It was devastating. It affected my whole family," he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David J. Novak questioned excusing the man. "I don't think anyone is going to dispute that victims are devastated and sad over the loss," Novak said.
Brinkema responded that "jurors are not machines, they are human beings," before sending the man home.
A woman was eliminated yesterday after admitting that she was worried about "reprisals" from terrorists if she served on the jury. Asked whom she meant, the woman said: "The terrorists in general, whoever they are. There seems to be a possibility today that anything can happen."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.