Al Qaeda conspirator Zaracias Moussaoui's defense complained bitterly Thursday that the pool of potential jurors for his sentencing in the death penalty trial was being stacked with people connected to Sept. 11 victims.
In the sharpest exchanges during six days of jury questioning, defense attorney Gerald Zerkin clashed with and prosecutors David Novak and David Raskin over who is too close the Sept. 11 case or its victims to serve.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema managed to qualify seven more potential jurors Wednesday morning, bringing the total to 74. She is seeking a pool of 85, which will be reduced March 6 to 12 jurors and six alternates who will decide whether Moussaoui is executed or imprisoned for life.
On Wednesday despite defense objections, Brinkema qualified a juror who had attended a funeral of man killed in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. On Thursday morning, none were qualified over defense objections. Nine would-be jurors were sent home, including three whom prosecutors wanted to keep.
Overall, 14 people have been put in the jury pool over defense protests and nine despite government objections.
When it appeared Brinkema might qualify a man still in contact with a fellow church member who was burned over 80 percent of his body in al Qaeda's attack on the Pentagon, Zerkin exploded:
"The jury panel is being stacked with people who have connections to people injured" or killed on Sept. 11, 2001. "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 30 peremptory — or unexplained — strikes to remove the man on March 6, Zerkin added, "There are only so many peremptory challenges and we have other issues to consider" like attitudes toward the death penalty.
Raskin argued that although the man admitted being affected by the injury he didn't hesitate to say it wouldn't affect his judgment. But Brinkema decided against him on grounds such burns were a long-term injury and the two were still in contact.
Zerkin also got Brinkema to reject a man who attended the funeral of a man killed at the World Trade Center because he was the father of his wife's college roommate.
Brinkema rejected as too close to Sept 11 a man whose sister's best friend's son was killed there.
Novak objected: "Now it's a sister's best friend's son?" Novak argued lots of people suffered Sept 11 losses and couldn't all be excluded.
Brinkema responded that the man called the loss "devastating" and said it affected his whole family because they watched the boy grow up.
Moussaoui remained quiet for the sixth day, but told Brinkema when she asked that his wireless earphones weren't working well during bench conferences obscured from the audience by the court's "white noise" machine. On leaving, he muttered his standard curse on his court-appointed lawyers and America and added: "God save Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.''
Moussaoui, a 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent, pleaded guilty in April to conspiring with al Qaeda to fly planes into U.S. buildings. But he denies any involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks and says he was training to fly a plane into the White House as part of a possible future attack.
By Michael J. Sniffen