ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Proclaiming "I am Al Qaeda," Zacarias Moussaoui disavowed his lawyers Monday and pledged to testify on his own behalf in the trial that will determine whether he is executed for terrorist conspiracy.
An often volatile figure in his proceedings, Moussaoui was removed from the courtroom during the opening of jury selection for speaking out of turn, each of the three times he appeared. "I want to be heard," he demanded. Of his lawyers, he said: "These people do not represent me."
After jury selection, expected to take a month, a penalty trial will determine whether the 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent, the only person in the U.S. charged in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, will be put to death or in prison for life.
His morning outburst, a minute into proceedings, became the pattern for the day as each new group of prospective jurors was brought in to answer an extensive questionnaire on their religious beliefs, cultural biases, group activities and much more. In his third appearance, in the afternoon, he repeatedly vowed to testify when the time comes.
"For four years I have waited," he said. "I will tell them the truth I know. I will take the stand."
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema quickly ordered marshals to take him from the courtroom; he went defiantly but calmly each time.
The questionnaire probes citizens' feelings about Muslims and Arabs, reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, response to the deadly 1993 FBI faceoff with Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, attitudes toward flying, and even whether they belong to groups such as the Rotary Club or Kiwanis.
The survey is being used to help the judge and the lawyers select 12 jurors and six alternates from a pool of 500 people from northern Virginia. The trial, expected to begin March 6, will determine whether Moussaoui will be put to death or given life in prison.
Among the survey questions: "Do you have any negative feelings or opinions about Muslims or people of Arab or North African descent?" "Do you believe Islam endorses violence to a greater or lesser extent than other religions?"
Brinkema told the prospective jurors they have no sentencing flexibility except to decide whether he should be executed or imprisoned for life without chance of parole. She said the case hinges on whether he lied when interrogated before Sept. 11, 2001 and people died as a result.
"A death penalty case is an awesome responsibility," she said. She instructed the citizens to be forthcoming if Moussaoui's courtroom behavior affected their ability to judge the case on its merits.
Moussaoui has admitted he came to the U.S. to join Al Qaeda attacks on buildings but denies specific knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot.
Moussaoui has vowed to fight for his life. He entered the 10th-floor courtroom wearing a green jumpsuit, the word "prisoner" on his back, and looked around at the prospective jurors. When Moussaoui began to speak, the judge said it was not his time to do so.
He remained calm, holding his hands behind his back, neither handcuffed nor shackled.
"I am not resisting," he said when the judge ordered marshals to take him out the first time.
When he was gone, the judge explained the questionnaire to the jury pool. Brinkema was bringing the pool into the courtroom in four groups through the day and presenting the 49-page questionnaire, made up of 159 questions. She winnowed the questions down from 89 proposed by prosecutors and 306 recommended by defense attorneys.
Moussaoui was hurried by motorcade into the U.S. District Court a few hours before his jury selection started, a trip of several blocks from his cell at an Alexandria jail.
Prosecutors contend Moussaoui could have prevented the attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people, by telling authorities about Al Qaeda's designs while he was in a Minnesota jail before Sept. 11. He had aroused suspicion while training to fly Boeing 747 jumbo jets.
When a jury is selected, jurors will be asked to decide first whether Moussaoui's acknowledged actions qualify him for the death penalty and then, if so, whether he deserves it. If either answer is no, he will get a life sentence. Once a jury is picked, opening statements are set for March 6. The trial could last one to three months.
Moussaoui has vowed "to fight every inch against the death penalty."
Arguing for execution, prosecutors contend Moussaoui could have told investigators what he knew when arrested instead of lying about his intentions. The defense argues that Moussaoui knew less about 9/11 than the government, citing investigations that turned up multiple missed opportunities that might have headed off the attacks.
The public cannot attend the jury selection but will allowed into the penalty trial.