Proclaiming "I am al Qaeda," terrorist conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui disrupted the opening of his sentencing trial Monday and was tossed out of court as selection began for the jurors who will decide whether he lives or dies.
An often volatile figure in his proceedings, Moussaoui was removed from the courtroom four separate times. "This trial is a circus," he declared. "I want to be heard."
His first outburst criticized his lawyers: "These people do not represent me." When the judge ordered Moussaoui to be quiet and he disobeyed, she ejected him from the courtroom for the first time, CBS News' Aleen Sirgany
He disavowed his lawyers and pledged to testify on his own behalf in the trial that is set to begin March 6. Moussaoui was thrown out of the federal courtroom in suburban Washington three times for voicing his objections to the process.
Jury selection is expected to take a month — an extraordinarily long period but typical in this slow-motion case that has labored through the courts for more than four years. It's also not unreasonable, says CBSNews.com Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen (audio).
After jury selection, a penalty trial will determine whether the 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent, the only person in the U.S. charged in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, will be put to death or sentenced to life in prison.
He pleaded guilty last April to conspiring to fly planes into U.S. buildings but claims he had no role in the Sept. 11 plot.
Moussaoui, who has vowed to fight for his life, entered the 10th-floor courtroom wearing a green jumpsuit, the word "prisoner" in white on his back. Short and slight with full dark beard, he calmly looked around at the prospective jurors as he entered.
The potential jurors — most of them white, from their 20s through their 50s or 60s — showed no reaction to his interruptions.
Brinkema told the jury pool: "If any of you feel that outburst or the way he conducted himself might affect the way in which you would go about judging this case, you need to clearly put that statement on the jury questionnaire."
Moussaoui's first outburst, a minute into the proceedings in the heavily guarded courtroom, became the pattern for the day as each new group of prospective jurors was brought in to answer an extensive questionnaire on their religious beliefs, cultural biases, group activities and much more. In afternoon appearances, he repeatedly vowed to testify.
"For four years I have waited," he said. "I will tell them the truth I know."
Twice he declared his allegiance to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. "I will take the stand to tell the whole truth about my involvement," he said.
"I am al Qaeda. They (his lawyers) are Americans. I'll have nothing to do with them."
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema ordered marshals to take him from the courtroom; he went calmly each time.
The questionnaire probes citizens' feelings about Muslims and Arabs, reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, response to the deadly 1993 FBI faceoff with Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, attitudes toward flying, and even whether they belong to groups such as the Rotary Club or Kiwanis.
The survey is being used to help the judge and the lawyers select 12 jurors and six alternates from a pool of 500 people from northern Virginia.
Among the questions: "Do you have any negative feelings or opinions about Muslims or people of Arab or North African descent?" "Do you believe Islam endorses violence to a greater or lesser extent than other religions?"
Brinkema told the prospective jurors they have no sentencing flexibility except to decide whether he should be executed or imprisoned for life without chance of parole.
She said the case hinges on whether Moussaoui lied when interrogated before Sept. 11, 2001, and whether people died as a result.
"A death penalty case is an awesome responsibility," she said.
Moussaoui was arrested on immigration charges Aug. 17, 2001, after arousing suspicion as he trained at a Minnesota flight school to fly 747 jetliners. He was still in custody when 19 hijackers flew two 757 and two 767 jetliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 Americans in the nation's deadliest terrorist attack.
"Everyone knows he's a terrorist, and I think that heightens the responsibility that (Brinkema) has as a judge to make sure things are fair," says Cohen.
Prosecutors contend Moussaoui could have prevented the attacks by telling authorities about al Qaeda's designs. The defense argues that Moussaoui knew less about 9/11 than the government, citing investigations that turned up multiple missed opportunities that might have headed off the attacks.
Before Monday's session, Moussaoui was hurried by motorcade into the U.S. District Court, a trip of several blocks from his cell at an Alexandria jail.