ALEXANDRIA, Va. – A veteran of the first U.S. war against Iraq was cleared Thursday as a potential member of the jury that will decide whether confessed Al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui will be executed or serve life in prison.
The Desert Storm veteran was among seven potential jurors selected before the court took a midday recess. Nine had been considered. Two people were rejected — one for violating the judge's order to avoid news accounts of Moussaoui's case, the other for asserting an inability to sentence someone to death.
A total of 22 people have been cleared by U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema. The pool of potential jurors includes a Muslim man born in Afghanistan and a Marine Corps lawyer whose boss' office was blown up on Sept. 11, 2001.
Moussaoui was again present in court. He looked surprised when he walked in and saw the mostly empty courtroom. Before the hearing began, Moussaoui met briefly with one of his court-appointed lawyers. Moussaoui previously had refused all contact with them.
Brinkema and the lawyers are seeking a pool of 85 people who could serve on Moussaoui's death-penalty jury without bias or prejudice.
Once they are qualified, prosecutors and defense lawyers can strike up to 30 jurors each for almost any reason they choose. A final jury of 12 plus six alternates will hear opening statements March 6.
On Wednesday Brinkema quizzed 24 jurors individually about their views on the death penalty, Islam and their ability to serve on a trial that could last up to three months.
Moussaoui sat silently in the courtroom as jurors answered. Brinkema had initially barred him from jury selection because of repeated outbursts, but changed her mind without explanation.
Eight men and seven women were cleared to serve Wednesday; nine were dismissed. Many others from the initial jury pool of 500 already have been eliminated based on their responses on a 50-page questionnaire they filled out on the first day of jury selection Feb. 6.
Among those qualified to serve: two Muslims — a woman born in Pakistan and a man born in Kabul, Afghanistan — who said their national origin and religion would not bias their views. Three people were qualified despite reservations about imposing the death penalty. (Three who said they could not impose the death penalty under any circumstance were stricken from the jury pool.)
Qualified for the pool over defense objections was a civilian lawyer in the Marine Corps who said her boss' Pentagon office blew up on 9/11, though he was not injured. She told Brinkema she wasn't worried about how her co-workers would react if she does not impose a death penalty.
Brinkema overruled defense objections, saying "the fact that her boss' office was blown up is not a sufficient connection to this case."
Last April, Moussaoui pleaded guilty to conspiring with Al Qaeda to fly aircraft into U.S. targets. To win the death penalty, prosecutors must prove Moussaoui was directly involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. Moussaoui says he had no role in 9/11 and instead was training for an aborted second wave of attacks.