By GREG GORDON
December 07, 2005
Should anybody who conspires to commit a terrorist act that would kill thousands of people get the death penalty?
Defense lawyers for confessed al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui have urged a judge to direct prospective jurors to answer those and more than 300 other detailed queries about their backgrounds and beliefs to help assure that an impartial jury decides whether Moussaoui lives or dies.
The defense's proposed 660-page questionnaire were made public days after prosecutors submitted 89 proposed questions of their own. The proposed questions offer a glimpse of both sides' strategies as they begin the arduous task of picking a jury in the only U.S. criminal prosecution to stem from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Yale Kamisar, a criminal law professor at the University of Michigan's law school, said it is "unusual to have questionnaires of this size and detail" and that U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema likely will scale them back considerably. He said there's little point in moving the trial to another city where the case has gotten less publicity, because the news media will follow.
Some of the proposed questions seem to be "loaded one way or the other," he said, and Brinkema "is going to have to really think about how to reword" them, he said.
Jury selection, scheduled to begin Feb. 6, will occur at a federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va., just four miles from the site where al Qaeda hijackers rammed an American Airlines jet into the Pentagon.
Prosecutors' proposed questions not only ask what potential jurors know about al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and other senior figures in the terror network, but also offer them opportunities to circle statements declaring their opposition to the death penalty or beliefs that it is "unfairly imposed against minorities."
Many of the questions relate to the degree to which jury candidates have followed publicity about the case and the Sept. 11 attacks.
Moussaoui, a 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent, pleaded guilty last April to six conspiracy counts charging that he joined in an al Qaeda plot to seize U.S. jetliners and ram them into buildings, but denied knowing anything about the Sept. 11 operation. Four of the counts carry a potential death penalty.
The jury must decide whether Moussaoui's failure to disclose the broad plot to investigators, after his Aug. 16, 2001 arrest in the Twin Cities, justify a death sentence.
In a recent ruling, Brinkema said an initial pool of 500 prospective jurors would be given the questionnaire and then questioned orally until 85 qualified jurors are identified for the final selection process.
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