Nearly 2 1/2 years after U.S. embassies in Africa were bombed, a trial began Wednesday for four men facing conspiracy charges that could bring the death penalty for two of them.
In a heavily guarded Manhattan courtroom, jury selection began promptly as U.S. District Judge Leonard B. Sand wished a group of 30 prospective jurors a happy new year and introduced the defendants.
Sand concluded his 10-minute talk by closing the rest of the jury selection process — which may take up to a month — to the public. Prospective jurors had already filled out questionnaires and faced additional questions orally.
He had said a day earlier that public scrutiny of the questioning, especially those pertaining to views about the death penalty, might poison the process because "some of the questions are so personal and require the divulgence of intimate family facts and circumstances."
Four defendants face trial in the Aug. 7, 1998, bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that left 224 people dead, including 12 Americans.
The judge in a written ruling Tuesday rejected legal arguments aimed at eliminating the possibility of a death sentence in the trial, which is expected to last up to a year. Prosecutors plan to call 100 witnesses from six countries.
Two of the defendants could be sentenced to death; the other two could face life in prison.
It is the same courtroom where six defendants were convicted in the Feb. 26, 1993, World Trade Center bombing and 10 defendants were convicted in a failed plot to blow up New York City landmarks.
In all, prosecutors have charged 22 men in connection with the embassy bombings. Besides the four who went on trial Wednesday, one other man is awaiting trial in New York, three are awaiting extradition from Britain and 13 remain at large. One man has already pleaded guilty.
Security will be exceptionally tight, with bomb-sniffing dogs checking the courtroom regularly.
In one pretrial hearing, a defendant charged toward the judge and was tackled by marshals. Another defendant whose trial has since been postponed was accused of critically injuring a federal prison guard during an escape attempt.
Sand warned the defendants Tuesday that they will not be permitted to disrupt the trial in any way. He said he had equipped the cell block behind the courtroom with closed-circuit TV and won't hesitate to order a disruptive defendant to watch the trial from there.