Because of limited space in the Alexandria, Va. federal courthouse only a half dozen reporters were allowed into Judge Leonie Brinkema's courtroom today for the start of jury selection in the sentencing phase of Zacarias Moussaoui's trial. When seated, the jury will determine whether Moussaoui, the only person convicted in the U.S. on charges stemming from the Sept. 11 attacks, is executed or spends the rest of his life in prison.
I was among the "pool" selected to hear the third of four sessions where prospective jurors were to be selected. The courtroom was filled with more than 130 prospective jurors. Most of them white, from their 20s through their 50s or 60s -- one woman wore a headscarf, presumably she was Muslim. All in all, nearly 500 possible jurors came to the courtroom in the four, roughly 30-minute sessions. That pool will be narrowed on February 15 to 85 and then on March 6 to 18. Only 12 jurors will decide the fate of Zacarias Moussaoui. The others will be alternates.
One minute into the proceedings today, Moussaoui, hands folded across his waist -- wearing a green prison jumpsuit with the white word "Prisoner" across his back -- was led into the courtroom by three plain-clothes marshals.
(On the elevator up to the 10th floor courtroom I asked one of the prosecutors in the case why Moussaoui was wearing a prison uniform and not street clothes, as defendants are entitled to wear when they appear before a jury. The prosecutor told me, "he had a choice and he made it." He didn't respond when asked what choices Moussaoui had.)
It was when he reached the defense table, halfway across the well of the court -- where his court appointed lawyers were sitting, that he burst out in a clear voice declaring that he is a member of al-Qaida. He disavowed his lawyers and pledged to testify on his own behalf in the trial. Still standing, he said to the crowd, "This trial is a circus." Then he declared, "I want to be heard." Of his lawyers, he said, "These people do not represent me." Then he recited the names of his court-appointed counsel. "This defense is a fraud... I will tell the truth that I know," he said, speaking with a thick French/Moroccan accent. "These lawyers are not my lawyers... I don't want to be represented by these lawyers," Moussaoui rambled.
"This is not the time," Judge Brinkema responded.
Over the judge's admonishment, Moussaoui went on, "For four years I have waited. I will tell them the truth I know." After about one minute of rambling, Judge Brinkema ordered marshals to take him from the courtroom. Moussaoui turned toward the judge, put his hand on his head and continued speaking -- though it was not possible to hear most of what he said. His parting words were clear as he was escorted out of the courtroom: "I will take the stand."
Judge Brinkema emphasized to the group of jurors "the gravity of the decision you will face about whether someone lives or dies." She described a death sentence as "an awesome responsibility not to be taken lightly." The judge also asked jurors to indicate on their 50 page questionnaires if today's outburst would affect their deliberations.