The massive task of selecting a jury to try 12 Hanafi Muslims accused of the one of the most widely reported crimes in the city's history approached an end yesterday after an unusual Saturday court session that included questions about terrorism abroad and loyalty to Muhammad Ali at home.
"You have been questioned continuously and thoroughly in the past three days," Judge Nicholas S. Nunzio told the 105 prospective jurors still present when court was adjourned at 5:27 p.m. "I caution you - do not discuss this case with anyone, because we are about to choose this jury."
Nunzio ordered the 105 to return to the makeshift courtroom in the main hall of the Pension Building, where the selection process has been conducted since Wednesday, at 9:15 a.m. Monday.
He warned them to beware of seeing, hearing or reading media accounts of the case in the meantime.
"May I suggest that you go to music cover the weekend," he said. "Do not taint yourself over the weekend by exposure to the media.
The 12 Hanafis are on trial for murder, kidnapping and related offenses stemming from the takeover last March of three downtown Washington buildings and the seizure of 149 hostages. Maurice Williams, 24, a reporter for radio station WHUR, was killed during the incident and several other persons were injured.
The blanket coverage given those events, which occurred from March to March 11, has posed a major problem in choosing 12 jurors and 12 alternates to decides the case. The jurors and alternates will be sequestered under guard during the four to 12 weeks that the trial is expected to take.
A total of 650 prospective jurors were summoned for the trial. Of these 431 appeared. On Wednesday, with the help of a computer, the number of "prime" prospects was reduced to 182.
Beginning Thursday and ending at 3:12 p.m. yesterday, Judge Nunxio questioned each of the 182 individually about how much they learned of the case through the media.
His question was whether, despite what they might have learned, they could still render a verdict soley on the basis of the evidence presented in court and the law as explained by the judge.
The rest of the process was conducted in open court. Others were excused for such reasons as their relutance to judge a case in which murder was one of the charges.
One juror was excused because he said the events of last March have upset him emotionally, although he had not been involved in them. In answer to a question about South Moluccan terrorists, who have been holding hostages in the Netherlands, another venireman said he was prejudiced against all acts of terror. He was excused.
Another question was whether any of the prospective jurors were so loyal to heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, a Black Muslim, that it would prejudice them if they were chosen for the jury.
The 12 Hanafi Muslims are accused of carrying out sieges at the International headquarters of B'nai B'rith, the Jewish service organization, at the District Building and the Islamic Center in an effort to compel federal authorities to turn over to them Black Muslims convicted of murdering seven Hanafis in 1978. All seven murder victims were relatives of Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, alleged leader of Hanafis.
The prosecution and the defense each can ask that 36 prospective jurors be excused without giving any reason This means that there are 72 prospects who can be "struck" without cause. The 105 veniremen returning Monday should therefore be enough to provide 12 jurors and 12 alternates unless others are excused for cause.