Judge questions Moussaoui jurors

Muslims, veteran, teacher among potential picks

February 16, 2006|By RICHARD A. SERRANO | RICHARD A. SERRANO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Two Muslim immigrants were qualified as potential jurors. So was a career Navy veteran once assigned to the Pentagon who nearly lost a friend on Sept. 11. So was a young woman seeking to become an FBI agent, who believes Zacarias Moussaoui still might be conspiring to attack the United States.

One by one yesterday, U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema asked a diverse group of prospective jurors whether they could put aside their anger over the attacks and fairly decide if the only man in this country who has admitted to being a Sept. 11 conspirator should be put to death.

The jury pool was drawn from Northern Virginia, including nearby Arlington, where 189 people were killed when one of four hijacked aircraft was flown into the Pentagon. But Brinkema has said she is convinced that she can find an impartial jury.

With the penalty phase of Moussaoui's trial set to begin March 6, Brinkema began asking about 500 potential jurors individually -- identified only by number -- about their feelings on a wide range of issues such as terrorism, airport security and the Islamic faith.

By the end of the day, the judge had qualified 15 of the 24 potential jurors she questioned and asked them to return for more scrutiny.

In April, Moussaoui pleaded guilty to capital murder and confessed that he collaborated with the Sept. 11 terrorists. But he said his mission was to fly a plane into the White House as part of a second wave of attacks.

Jurors must decide two key issues: whether Moussaoui's refusal to warn the government that the attacks were coming makes him eligible for the death penalty, and if so, whether he should be executed or serve life in prison without parole.

The judge lifted her ruling of the previous day banning the defendant from the courtroom for interrupting the proceedings. Lawyers said he wrote the judge a note promising to behave, and he sat quietly in the courtroom yesterday.

At one point Moussaoui, 37, told the judge he did not want to miss his early afternoon prayer, and the proceedings recessed in time for him to pray. When he was escorted out by federal marshals for the lunch break, he could be heard rasping under his breath, "God curse America."

Defense lawyers objected when Brinkema qualified various potential jurors and told them to return early next month for final selection.

The judge qualified as potential jurors a Muslim woman from Pakistan and a Muslim man born in Kabul, Afghanistan. Brinkema also qualified a woman who worked as a secretary for the CIA in the 1960s and later worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Afghanistan.

An elderly man with 30 years of active and reserve Navy duty was qualified, though he said he once worked at the Pentagon and had a friend who was working there when the plane hit.

A teacher who wants to be an FBI agent said she thought Moussaoui "may be in a conspiracy even now with people outside the country to harm the United States." She was qualified.

So was a man who said he thought the FBI missed several opportunities to stop the attack.

Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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