Judge Nicholas S. Nunzio looked at the 169 prospective jurors assembled in the heat and humidity of the Pension Building yesterday and said. "This may take some time, ladies and gentlemen, but this is not your average petty larceny case."
The time was about 2 p.m. and there was a titter of laughter from his listeners. It was the last group laugh of the day, because more than four hours later the process of selecting a jury to sit in judgement of 12 Hanafi Muslims charged with murder, kidnaping and related offenses still was going on.
By the time court adjourned at 6:15, the difficulty of picking a jury to try one of the most publicized crimes in the city's history had become apparent. The process was scheduled to resume at 9:15 this morning and Nunzio indicated that he may hold an unusual Saturday session in hopes of completing the selection of 12 jurors and 12 alternates - all of whom will be sequestered under guard throughout the trial - by the middle of next week.
At the close of yesterday's session, the second day of the jury selection process, this is where matters stood:
Six persons had been excused because they said they knew one or more of the 12 defendants or their attorneys, and that this would affect their ability to judge the case impartially on the law and the evidence.
Three more were excused because they said they knew Harry T. Alexander, a former D.C. Superior Court judge who is attorney for Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, 54, alleged leader of 11 others Hanafis in the takeover of three Washington buildings last March and the seizing of 149 hostages.
The group was asked about possible contacts with Alexander in a separate question of the 10 years he spent on the Superior Court bench.
Thirty-three persons were asked detailed questioned by Nunzio about whether they could judge the case impartially even though they had heard, seen or read of the case. These inverviews, conducted in the presence of the 12 defense attorneys and the two prosecutors in a small courtroom off the massive main hall of the Pension Building, took almost four hours.
At the end of that time, three of the 33 had been excused.
Five other persons were excused after they told the judge that they had business or personal problems that would prevent them from serving through the trial, which is expected to take at least two months.
The session yesterday left a large number of prospective jurors still to be questioned about their ability to be impartial despite the massive media coverage of the takeovers themselves and the events since.
The long afternoon was punctuated by small but important events, such as warnings that the group must be in court at the appointed times.
On Wednesday, 431 prospective jurors filled out questionnaires. The answers were fed into a computer. The computer produced a list of 182 "prime" prospects for duty on the jury.
Judge Nunzio learned that 13 of the 182 failed to return to the make-shift courtroom in the massive main hall of the Pension Building yesterday at the time he ordered.
"I can assure you, they have not seen the last of me," he told those who were present.
Later in the afternoon, four of 13 appeared.
At another point, Nunzio said those who did not show up when ordered would "find U.S. marshals standing at your doors." He forgave the tardiness, however, of the four who were late yesterday.
he also observed, "Ladies and gentlemen, it's going to be a long, hot summer."
There was some grousing among persons who had to wait to be questioned. There was nothing to do but sit on the folding chairs that had been provided. Courtroom protocol was relaxed to permit smoking.
It was understood that the jurors would be asked about 60 questions in all. Although the questions themselves have been put under seal by Nunsio until they are asked in open court, it is known that they bear, on race and religion - all the Hanafis are black - and knowledge of other hostage situations, including the holding of more than 100 children and several dozen adults by South Moluccan nationalists in The Netherlands.
The question that took most of yesterday afternoon - whether these called can be impartial despite their knowledge of the case - is regarded by many of those involved in the case as the crucial one.
The first order of business today is to be the presentation of government witnesses to the jury panel. The 12 Hanafis will then get their first glimpse of those who will testify against them in a case in which they are charged with 32 offenses, 29 of which carry maximum penalties of life in prison.
After the witnesses have been presented, Judge Nunzio plans to resume his questioning of individual veniremen.