ALEXANDRIA, Va. – A pool of 86 potential jurors was filled Friday for the sentencing trial of Al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui as the judge tried to reassure defense lawyers the panel wasn't stacked against their client.
The panel of 48 men and 38 women includes 16 chosen over defense objections and six over prosecutors' protests.
In a seventh day of questioning would-be jurors, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema chose the final three Friday, one more than she originally planned. These 86 will return March 6 to be reduced by peremptory — or unexplained — strikes by prosecutors and defense lawyers to the 12 jurors and six alternates.
Opening statements and the first trial witnesses also are set for March 6.
The jury will recommend either death or life in prison without possibility of release for Moussaoui.
The 37-year old Frenchman pleaded guilty last April to conspiring with Al Qaeda to fly planes into U.S. buildings. He says he was not involved in Al Qaeda's Sept. 11, 2001, plot but rather was training to fly a 747 jetliner into the White House as part of a possible later attack.
When the jury pool was completed, Brinkema tried to allay fears expressed Friday by defense attorney Gerald Zerkin.
She told Zerkin a pool of 86 was enough to get the final 18 even if prosecutors and defense lawyers each use all their 30 strikes and a few potential jurors have to drop out because of unexpected changes in their lives.
"You've got a ton of strikes, way more than the law requires," she told Zerkin. She added that by her rough estimate, based on courtroom questions and objections directed at the 86 who were picked, "you're nowhere near 30 strikes."
Zerkin responded: "I agree."
By a rough count, about 20 pool members have acknowledged some connection to the events or victims of Al Qaeda's Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Some even attended funerals for people killed in the attacks; others merely knew people who were eyewitnesses.
On Friday, Zerkin had told Brinkema, "We can't continue to put people on who have connections to victims."
"The jury panel is being stacked with people who have connections to people injured" or killed in the attacks, he said. "It's a source of bias that will infect the jury because of the sheer number of them."
Before Brinkema could advise him again to use one of his strikes on March 6 to remove some, Zerkin added, "There are only so many peremptory challenges and we have other issues to consider," like attitudes toward the death penalty.
Zerkin's complaint appeared to produce some results Friday as three potential jurors were later sent home over prosecutors' objections. They included a man who had attended a funeral of a man killed at the World Trade Center, a man still in contact with a fellow church member who was burned over 80 percent of his body at the Pentagon, and a man whose sister's best friend's son was killed at the World Trade Center.
Moussaoui remained quiet during all seven days of jury questioning. Each time he left for breaks, however, he muttered a curse on his court-appointed lawyers and America and called for God's blessing on Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.