9/11 attacks still haunt potential jurors
Wrenching questions of bias as New Yorkers contemplate trial duty

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 2009

NEW YORK -- It was Sept. 12 before Michael Curatola remembered Pablo Ortiz. Watching the people leap from the windows, feeling the earth shudder, Curatola was so immersed in the horror of 9/11 that he failed to register that on the 88th floor of one of the towers was a neighbor -- a friend who, eight years later, would be his reason for wanting a seat on the jury assaying the guilt of the men charged with planning it all.

"Just to get vengeance for my dead friend who's not here anymore," said Curatola, cleaning the lobby of the building next door to the hole where the twin towers once stood, a wound cleaned and tended but still open.

"But that word 'vengeance' sounds too much like a personal vendetta," Curatola added. "I mean justice."

The distinction can be elusive in this city as it tries those accused of orchestrating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In announcing this month that five accused plotters, including self-described mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, would be brought from Guantanamo to federal district court in Manhattan, the Obama administration declared that the trials would display not only the crimes, but also the resolute fairness of America's system of justice.

Which was what gnawed at Curatola the longer he thought about it.

"Do you seriously think they can get a fair trial blocks from that hole in the ground?" he asked. "Who are they going to pick for the jury? Everyone was involved, when you really think about it."

Most New Yorkers don't have to think very long.

"Oh, no. No. I have no impartiality," said Laura Stein, 45 and an artist, when asked if she saw herself as a 9/11 juror. "It was the worst day of my life. And I didn't lose anybody. I wasn't even in the area. And still the most fearful day of my life."

"We took it personally," said Sara Martinez, 52, an associate at a Verizon location near Ground Zero. "We don't feel safe anymore, secure anymore. It took away our peace of mind. It took away a lot of things."

In New York, 2,752 people lost their lives. An additional 184 perished at the Pentagon, and 40 more in the Shanksville, Pa., crash of United Airlines Flight 93.

"One of my children is named for someone who was killed in the World Trade Center," said Albert Gregory III, a construction worker from Staten Island. He wore a T-shirt decorated with the names of his six children -- Kristen, now 6, is named after Kristen Montanaro, a friend since childhood who worked in one of the towers. As he spoke, Gregory held a copy of the New York Post rolled in his fist. The day after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.'s announcement that the accused plotters would be tried in New York, the front page featured a mock postcard.

"Welcome to New York," it said. "Now Die!"

"It's a real liberal town, New York," said Gregory, 40. "A lot of people might not want them executed." He called over his mother-in-law, "a real liberal, see what she says."

"I say hang 'em," said Georgianna Neller, a state Health Department investigator, smiling grimly and gesturing toward the hole in the ground. "Hang 'em right over there. Put the girder up.

"It's just a heartbreaking thing," she said. "And I don't see who could be on the jury and not be emotional."

Legal experts say it can be done.

"Anybody who was in New York on 9/11, or D.C., was touched personally by it," said Anthony S. Barkow, a former federal prosecutor who runs the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at New York University. "But there are different levels of that, and there are different levels of how people have subsequently dealt with that."

He added: "I was in D.C. on September 11 and I remember fighter jets flying overhead. And we evacuated the U.S. attorney's office. But that's different from somebody who saw it out their window, for instance."

Previous terrorism trials have established a culling process, and potential jurors have been called in by the hundreds. Those with obvious links to the events were excused. The others were rigorously interviewed for bias, under oath.

Philippe Rousseau, who spent three days and four nights clearing the wreckage, would be out in the first round.

"I almost died myself that day," said Rousseau, now retired as a New York firefighter. "I'd say hang 'em. Burn 'em. Electrocute 'em. Kill 'em. I am not open-minded on the subject."

Others, however, insist they could be.

Nelson Melendez, now 20, was in sixth grade the day the towers fell.

"I feel like I could make a just decision," said Melendez, now a college student. "Mostly for the reason that I didn't personally have anyone in the tower. I could have the distance from it."

"Absolutely, I could be on the jury," said Robert Hill, 35, who once worked in the towers but was on the subway that morning. He found proximity compelling. "It happened here, and we were the ones most affected by it. I could be fair."

Dan Jordan, 58, folded a morning paper in the drizzle opposite Ground Zero.

"I don't know the answer," he said. As a lawyer, he knows about impartiality: "It's the whole basis of our judicial system." But as a native New Yorker, he lost 10 high school classmates that day, plus a cousin.

"I think I could do it. It'd be troubling," he said. "I try to be a fair person."

Some New Yorkers said they would be reluctant to give up months of their lives for a trial so likely to end in conviction.

"We have to process them through the system right, that's how America works," said Elvin Singh, a cellphone salesman. "But I wouldn't want to be on that jury. It's a waste of time."

Others admit to apprehension, both for the city and for themselves, whatever precautions are taken to shield jurors' identities.

"Fear is fear," said Hubert Findlay, 59, drawing a finger across his neck. "Plain-spoken, it's a possibility. That's always in the back of your mind. If it's not, you'd be a fool."

In his tiny shop off Queens Avenue, however, Jasbir Kukreja could not see the problem.

"Why should we be fearful?" he said. "We should be strong enough to do what we have to do."

The Indian immigrant demurred on the question of jury duty, moot anyway because Queens stands outside the Southern District of New York. "I'm too small bird for this all," he said. "These are complicated questions."

But in the quarter-century since arriving, Kukreja has grown to admire the character of the place.

"Because America is a land of immigrants, people are very open-minded," he said, alone at rush hour, sipping milky tea amid the shelves of batteries and gloves. "Unfortunately, I did not make any money in New York. But the people are very gentle, very respectful toward each other. This is not a lesson I would learn in India. New York City has given me that lesson."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company