- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 5, 2006

Final jury selection begins today in the penalty trial for admitted al Qaeda terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, who faces death in his guilty plea of conspiring to fly airplanes into U.S. government buildings.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema in Alexandria will preside as prosecutors and defense attorneys attempt to whittle down a pool of 86 prospective jurors to 18, including six alternates. The government and the defense have up to 30 peremptory challenges to strike jurors without having to list a reason.

The final jury will be asked to decide whether Moussaoui will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole or die by lethal injection. Opening statements tentatively are scheduled to begin this afternoon.

Senior Justice Department officials said that prosecutors, in seeking the death penalty, have to show that Moussaoui is an “appropriate candidate” based on the aggravating and mitigating circumstances of the case, and the jury will be asked to weigh those facts against the law and make an “objective decision.”

The jury is anonymous, meaning neither the government nor the defense knows who the jurors are; only the court has that information. Once a verdict has been reached, the senior department officials said, the judge is bound to impose that decision — life in prison or death.

If the jury does not unanimously decide on death, they said, the judgment defaults to life in prison.

Moussaoui, 37, a French national of Moroccan descent, pleaded guilty in April to conspiring with the 19 al Qaeda terrorists who crashed four hijacked jetliners on September 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people.

Under a 1991 Supreme Court ruling giving juries the right to take the pain and suffering of relatives into account, prosecutors are expected to call witnesses who lost relatives in the September 11 attacks.

A six-count indictment said Moussaoui schemed with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to murder thousands of people in the September 11 attacks. Named as unindicted co-conspirators were bin Laden and al Qaeda members Ayman al-Zawahri, head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad; Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, accused of providing funds to Moussaoui from banks in the United Arab Emirates; and Ramzi Binalshibh, suspected of moving cash to Moussaoui. The unindicted co-conspirators also included the 19 hijackers.

Four of the counts against Moussaoui called for the death penalty: conspiring with al Qaeda to kill and maim persons in this country, conspiring to commit air piracy by seizing U.S. airplanes by means of force and violence, conspiring to destroy those airplanes, and conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction — aircraft as missiles and bombs.

Moussaoui came to the FBI’s attention in August 2001, when agents in Minneapolis learned of his flight training. The agents detained Moussaoui on visa violations and later sought a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act order to search his computer, although lawyers at FBI headquarters denied the request, citing insufficient probable cause.

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