ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Opening its argument that Zacarias Moussaoui be executed, the government asserted Monday that he "did his part as a loyal Al Qaeda soldier" and caused the deaths of nearly 3,000 people by failing to tell what he knew of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Moussaoui's defense countered that his dreams of being a terrorist were far removed from anything he could actually do, and that he had no part in the attacks. "That is Zacarias Moussaoui in a nutshell," said his court-appointed lawyer Edward MacMahon. "Sound and fury signifying nothing."
As Moussaoui stroked his beard and families of Sept. 11 victims watched on closed-circuit TV, prosecutor Rob Spencer evoked the horror of that day and laid blame on the only man charged in the attacks.
"He lied so the plot could proceed unimpeded," Spencer asserted. "With that lie, he caused the deaths of nearly 3,000 people. He rejoiced in the death and destruction."
He went on: "Had Mr. Moussaoui just told the truth, it would all have been different."
A school teacher, a veteran of the first Gulf War and an Iranian-born Sunni Muslim woman are among the jurors who will decide whether Moussaoui is put to death or imprisoned for life.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema impaneled 18 jurors and alternates in 90 minutes. One who appeared upset at being chosen was excused, meaning the trial will proceed with 12 jurors and five alternates instead of six.
Moussaoui, a 37-year-old French citizen, has acknowledged his loyalty to the Al Qaeda terrorist network and his intent to commit acts of terrorism, but denies any prior knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot.
Moussaoui pleaded guilty in April to conspiring with Al Qaeda to hijack planes and commit other crimes. The trial will determine his punishment, and only two options are available: death or life in prison.
In his opening statement, MacMahon appealed to jurors to judge his client fairly, not "as a substitute for Usama bin Laden."
He scoffed at the idea Moussaoui had any part in the plot. "Moussaoui certainly wasn't sent over here to tell a lie, ladies and gentlemen."
Frequently ejected from the courtroom earlier because of his outbursts against his court-appointed attorneys, Moussaoui sat quietly through the opening of his trial, gazing often at the jurors or the gallery.
At the end of the morning hearing, he spoke to one member of his defense team: "Just to let you know, you're not my lawyer, thanks a lot."
His mother, Aicha el-Wafi, spoke up for her son in a CNN interview. "All they can have against him is the things that he said, the words that he has used," she said, "but actual acts that he committed, there aren't any."
But D. Hamilton Peterson of Bethesda, Md., who lost his father Donald and stepmother Jean on hijacked Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, declared, "I want accountability."
"I believe Moussaoui is an excellent candidate for the death penalty," he said outside the courtroom. "He is nothing less than a mass murderer."
The jury included a high school math teacher who has traveled widely in the Middle East, a Sunni Muslim woman who was born in Iran and a man who served as a Navy lieutenant in the Persian Gulf during the Desert Storm war with Iraq in 1990-91.
Only two of the 21 prospective jurors with some connection to the Sept. 11 attacks made it on the final panel of 17.
One was a woman whose brother-in-law works for the New York City Police Department and helped with rescue at the World Trade Center. The math teacher had a more remote connection: The fathers of two of her pupils are firefighters who responded to the 9/11 crash at the Pentagon. She helped freshmen make a quilt to give to the fire department.
One woman who was seated said earlier that she would tend to assume an al-Qaida member is evil. Jurors also included a mental health researcher, a man whose father retired from the CIA just before 9/11, a man who serves in the military reserves and a federal government employee who said he thought there was a lack of communication between the FBI and CIA before 9/11.
The defense and prosecution, whittling down prospects from a pool of more than 80, both managed to avoid the jurors they objected to the most.
After the jurors were seated and sworn in, one asked to speak to the judge and after a bench conference, she was excused for unspecified personal reasons. That left 10 men and seven women to hear the case.
Members of the jury pool generally kept their eyes away from Moussaoui and those who did not make the final cut appeared relieved. "I'm so happy," one woman said as she walked out.
Those selected will not know who is a juror and who is an alternate until late in the trial.
The jury pool already had been qualified to serve during a two-week process in which prospects were quizzed individually by Brinkema and filled out 50-page questionnaires asking their views about the death penalty, Al Qaeda, the FBI and their reactions to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Arrangements for the trial have been years in the making. Victims of the terrorist attacks and their families could watch the trial on closed-circuit TV at federal courthouses in lower Manhattan and Central Islip in New York, Boston, Newark, N.J., Philadelphia and in Alexandria, thanks to legislation passed in Congress.
To obtain the death penalty, prosecutors must first prove a direct link between Moussaoui and the Sept. 11 attacks. Moussaoui denies any connection to 9/11, but says he was training for a possible future attack.
Prosecutors will try to link Moussaoui to 9/11 by arguing that the FBI would have prevented the attacks if only Moussaoui had told the truth to the FBI about his terrorist links when he was arrested in August 2001.
The defense argues that the FBI and other agencies knew more about the hijackers' plans before 9/11 than Moussaoui and still failed to stop the attacks.