ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- Despite numerous outbursts by Zacarias Moussaoui proclaiming, "I am al-Qaida!" a federal judge pushed forward yesterday with the lengthy process of selecting a jury to determine whether the only man to be tried in the United States in the Sept. 11 conspiracy should live or die.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema started the process by bringing about 500 potential jurors into her courtroom and asking them to fill out questionnaires on a broad number of issues, such as their attitudes toward Muslims and the Sept. 11 hijackers, and even whether they believe it is safe to fly.
Repeatedly, groups of Northern Virginia residents entered the courtroom, and repeatedly the 37-year-old defendant interrupted the proceedings. Each time, the judge ordered that Moussaoui be removed.
"This trial is a circus," he proclaimed."I want to be heard!" he shouted.
"These people do not represent me," he said, referring to the defense lawyers sitting nearby.
Erratic and difficult to understand, Moussaoui insisted that he will testify on his own behalf when the trial gets under way with the seating of a jury March 6.
"For four years I have waited. I will tell them the truth I know. I will take the stand," he said.
The trial is only a sentencing phase. Moussaoui, a Frenchman of Moroccan descent, pleaded guilty in April to six criminal charges that he had a role in the Sept. 11 conspiracy led by Osama bin Laden.
Moussaoui did not deny that he was an al-Qaida operative. But he said he was not sent to the United States to board one of the four hijacked airliners, insisting that he was being groomed to fly a fifth aircraft into the White House.
He was arrested in August 2001, a month before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and jailed on immigration charges in Minnesota after raising suspicions by attending flight schools there and in Oklahoma.
Federal prosecutors plan to focus the case for his execution on their contention that if he had cooperated with FBI agents after his arrest and told them about the plot, the government might have been able to prevent the loss of nearly 3,000 lives on Sept. 11.
Defense lawyers hope to convince the jury that the government missed numerous chances to learn about the impending attacks, noting officials' decision not to open up Moussaoui's laptop computer and an earlier FBI memo expressing concerns about Middle Eastern immigrants taking flight lessons in Phoenix.
Despite Moussaoui's outbursts, Brinkema pressed on. Each time she ordered him removed, and each time he complied.
"I am not resisting," he told the federal marshals, sometimes raising his hands in the air.
Then the judge turned her attention to the potential jurors.
"A death penalty case is an awesome responsibility," she told them.
Moussaoui could be sent to the federal execution chamber in Terre Haute, Ind., or sentenced to life without parole, probably at the high-security "Supermax" prison in Florence, Colo.
The questionnaires are designed to help prosecutors and defense lawyers streamline the selection process when jury candidates return Feb. 15 for individual questioning by the judge.
Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.