A co-worker of a woman killed in one of the Sept. 11 jetliner crashes cleared a preliminary hurdle Thursday to sit on the jury that will decide whether confessed al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is executed or spends the rest of his life in prison.
For a second straight day, Moussaoui kept silent in court and closely watched the interrogation of potential jurors by U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema. Moussaoui wore a white knit cap and green prison jumpsuit.
But the second day, he muttered "God curse America" while leaving at midday.
The 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent pleaded guilty last April to conspiring with al Qaeda to fly planes into U.S. buildings, but he denied any part in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Instead, he claimed to be training to fly a plane into the White House later.
After qualifying 14 of 22 potential jurors interviewed Thursday, Brinkema said selection was moving faster than expected.
With a total of 29 selected in two days, the judge said she might finish picking 85 potential jurors by the end of next week.
The 85 will return March 6 for lawyers to exercise peremptory — or unexplained — strikes to whittle the total to 12 jurors and six alternates and to deliver opening statements in the sentencing trial.
Eight potential jurors were dismissed Thursday: two women because they were too inclined to impose a death penalty — one called it "a healing process" — and a third woman who was not sure she could ever impose the death penalty. Others who were dismissed had health or financial hardships.
In approving the 14 potential jurors, Brinkema overruled defense objections to six people and government objections to three others.
Defense lawyer Gerald Zerkin unsuccessfully objected to a water and sewer authority executive who said a co-worker was killed in a plane crashed by al Qaeda hijackers.
He had worked with her on two projects and may have had drinks with her but did not attend her funeral, he said. Because of work responsibilities, "I probably know too much" about the impact of her death on her family, he said.
"We can't have associates of victims on the jury," Zerkin said. "He would qualify as a victim impact witness."
But Brinkema said the man sounded fair and said not every terrorist deserves execution.
The government objected in vain to a woman who works in county government, described herself as a Massachusetts liberal and wrote on a jury questionnaire that "I don't think we have the right to take anyone's life."
Zerkin failed to exclude a male veteran who had served in Kuwait, though not during wartime, on grounds he wrote that "terrorism is the ultimate crime."
Both told Brinkema they could set such opinions aside and follow the law. Brinkema told the lawyers she put more weight on answers to face-to-face questions in court than she did on jury questionnaire answers. She said the lawyers could use peremptory strikes to eliminate the potential jurors later.
Before the hearing, Moussaoui met briefly in a private holding area with one of his court-appointed lawyers. But twice upon leaving at breaks, Moussaoui told them not to visit him again.
He has not cooperated with them and even defended himself for 17 months before Brinkema put them back in charge because of his repeated court outbursts and insult-laden legal briefs.