Moussaoui Penalty Trial Begins

Lady Gaga performs at the Glastonbury festival in Somerset, Friday June 26 2009.
AP
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema begins jury selection Monday in the trial of confessed al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.

It 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).

"I think the judge is going above and beyond what she needs to do, to try to ensure that Moussaoui gets a fair trial," says Cohen. "She knows that he's a confessed terrorist, she knows that he's already conceded that he's a member of al Qaeda.

"What she wants is to try to find 12 people who can judge him fairly, who can judge him as a person, and not for his views, necessarily, and who will be fair. And I think that's why it's going to take several weeks to get that jury in place, especially because the trial is so close to the Pentagon."

The jurors' task: Decide whether the 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent is put to death or imprisoned for life.

Moussaoui, held for more than four years in the Alexandria jail, is appearing in the heavily guarded courtroom a few miles from the Pentagon, one of the targets of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Few if any disclosures were expected as the primary task for the day was for 500 potential jurors from Northern Virginia to fill out questionnaires about their attitudes on the death penalty and knowledge of the case. The final list of questions was selected by Brinkema from 89 proposed by prosecutors and 306 recommended by defense attorneys.

Moussaoui is the only person charged in this country in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks — the deadliest in U.S. history. Nearly 3,000 Americans died when 19 al Qaeda hijackers crashed four airliners into New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

Last April, against advice from his court-appointed attorneys, Moussaoui pleaded guilty to six conspiracy counts. He admitted he "knew of al Qaeda's plans to fly airplanes into prominent buildings in the United States and he agreed to travel to the United States to participate in the plan."

But during the terror attacks, Moussaoui was in jail in Minnesota on immigration charges, having aroused suspicion while training to fly Boeing 747 jumbo jets.

He claims he knew nothing of the Sept. 11 plot.

Instead, he told Brinkema, he had been ordered by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to learn to fly a 747 into the White House as part of a different plot if the United States refused to release Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian cleric. Rahman is serving life for crimes related to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and 1995 plots against New York landmarks.

"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.

Moussaoui vowed "to fight every inch against the death penalty."

Once 12 jurors and six alternates are picked for the sentencing trial, opening statements are set for March 6. The trial could last one to three months.

The jurors will be asked to decide first whether what Moussaoui acknowledged qualifies for the death penalty and then, if so, whether he deserves it. If either answer is no, he will get life in prison.

Arguing for execution, prosecutors contend Moussaoui could have prevented the Sept. 11 attack by telling investigators what he knew when arrested instead of lying about his intentions. The defense argues that Moussaoui knew less about 9/11 than the government, citing investigations that turned up multiple missed opportunities to possibly prevent the attacks.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers wanted to ask potential jurors about their knowledge and attitude toward Islam. Brinkema allowed such questions in previous terrorism cases.

Prosecutors wanted to know whether potential jurors belonged to veterans groups, the American Civil Liberties Union or the National Rifle Association. Defense attorneys wanted to know their favorite TV shows and what bumper stickers are on their cars.