By GREG GORDON
February 16, 2006
WASHINGTON - With a chastened Zacarias Moussaoui back in the courtroom and sitting silently, a federal judge questioned two dozen prospective jurors Wednesday and found 15 qualified to decide whether the confessed al Qaeda conspirator should live or die.
As one-on-one questioning began, prosecutors and defense lawyers in the first U.S. criminal prosecution stemming from the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks zeroed in on influencing the selection of jurors they calculate are most likely to swing in their direction in a death penalty case.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema banned Moussaoui from the courtroom during jury selection, which is expected to take more than a week, after he refused her orders to end courtroom outbursts in which he has blasted his attorneys and America's justice system. She relegated him to watching the proceedings over closed-circuit television in a jail cell, but reinstated him overnight without public explanation, presumably after he communicated a promise to control his behavior.
Brinkema plans to continue one-on-one questioning of as many as 250 prospective jurors from an initial pool of 500, until she has 85 acceptable candidates. A 12-member jury and six alternates will be empanelled from that group on March 6, shortly before opening statements in the sentencing trial.
Among those the judge ruled Wednesday to be acceptable were a Marines Corps attorney who said her boss' office was "blown up" when one of the hijacked planes hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11; a Pakistani immigrant and an Afghani immigrant who, like Moussaoui, are Muslim; a woman who worked in Afghanistan for the U.S. government; a 24-year Navy veteran, and a young teacher who sought a job at the FBI and considers al Qaeda members to be "brainwashed."
Some jury candidates were excused because of their moral or religious reservations about the death penalty, but some were cleared when they said they could overcome them if required to follow the law.
Moussaoui, a 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent, pleaded guilty last April to six counts of conspiring with the Sept. 11 hijackers in a broad plot to seize and crash U.S. jetliners. Moussaoui said in pleading that he was training at a Minneapolis-area flight school to fly a 747 jumbo jet, possibly into the White House, but denied knowing anything about the Sept. 11 plot.
He will serve a minimum sentence of life in prison without parole. The trial is to determine whether he should be executed under any of three capital counts.
The jurors' identities are being kept anonymous for security reasons.
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