ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Unexpectedly allowed back in court, confessed Al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui kept quiet Wednesday while a Muslim woman from Pakistan and a Navy veteran with a friend who was at the Pentagon on Sept. 11 cleared preliminary hurdles to sit on his sentencing jury.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema had barred Moussaoui from jury selection Tuesday because he wouldn't promise to stop giving insult-laden speeches.
Brinkema did not explain her change of mind in court, but she had said the day before that she might reconsider if Moussaoui decided to alter his behavior. Even Moussaoui's court-appointed defense lawyers did not know why she changed her mind.
Nine of the 12 prospective jurors interviewed during a morning session were qualified for service. Identified only by number, they were ordered to return March 6 when lawyers will exercise peremptory — or unexplained — challenges to whittle the pool to 12 jurors and six alternates.
The jury will decide whether the 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent, who pleaded guilty last April to conspiring with Al Qaeda to fly planes into U.S. buildings, is executed or imprisoned for life.
The nine included three who expressed deep concerns about imposing a death penalty and two who expressed support for the principle of "an eye for an eye." All said they could follow the law despite these views.
Three potential jurors were dismissed. Two said the loss of work from a trial that might last until the end of May would pose financial hardship. The third, a man who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam war, was dismissed because he knew someone killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon.
Clad in a white knit cap and green prison jump suit with "prisoner" in white block letters on the back, Moussaoui arrived through a side door without warning moments after the proceeding came to order. He craned his neck to scan the faces of the prospective jurors and intently watched them answer individual questions.
But Moussaoui kept silent except when Brinkema asked him if he would delay his midday prayer from 12:30 p.m. until the 1 p.m. lunch break.
"No, I'm going to pray," Moussaoui replied. But the morning session concluded before his appointed prayer time anyway.
His only other remark was barely audible to a few spectators sitting near the side door. "God curse America," he muttered as he left for the lunch break.
Brinkema qualified a Muslim woman, originally from Pakistan, after she said her origin and religion would have no bearing on her deliberations.
Two jurors were qualified over defense objections. They included a white-haired man in a dark suit and tie who had 30 years in active and reserve duty for the Navy, including time at the Pentagon. He said he knew a contractor who was working in the building near the crash site on Sept. 11.
"I remember him telling me it was very loud and surprising, and he ran faster than he ever had in his life," the juror said.
Defense attorney Gerald Zerkin objected because "he knows someone who was at the crime scene."
But Brinkema said that she would not disqualify potential jurors "just because they knew people who worked at the Pentagon," absent something special about their relationship or experience.
Over defense objections, Brinkema also qualified a young female teacher who endorsed the "eye for an eye" principle.
The woman had unsuccessfully applied to work for the FBI and said, "I always wanted to work for the FBI since I was a teenager." She also expressed the view that Moussaoui might be brainwashed and "he may be in conspiracy even now with people outside the country to harm the United States."
Defense attorneys — joined Wednesday by jury consultant Marjorie Fargo — unsuccessfully sought further questioning about her views on the death penalty vs. life in prison.
One potential juror qualified despite reservations about the death penalty said he had consulted his priest to determine if jury duty would conflict with his Catholic religion and concluded it would not.
"I just wanted to make sure I had the right theology," the man said.
During the first day of jury selection, Brinkema had tossed Moussaoui from court four times for speechmaking. Subsequently she ordered him to watch the remainder of jury selection on closed-circuit television from a courthouse jail cell.
Moussaoui claims he had no role in the Sept. 11 plot and instead was training to fly a 747 jetliner into the White House as part of a later plot.