ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Prosecutors portrayed Zacarias Moussaoui as a "proud and unrepentant terrorist" whose lies obscured clues to the detection of 11 of al-Qaida's Sept. 11 hijackers, while defense lawyers warned jurors not to make him a "scapegoat" for the government's failure to stop the plot as his long-awaited death-penalty sentencing trial began yesterday.
In opening statements, prosecutors painted an image of the "clear blue sky" in America on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and said Moussaoui - although he was arrested in August after his odd behavior at a flight school aroused suspicions - was responsible for the smoking ruins and 2,972 deaths that followed because he failed to admit what he knew of al-Qaida's plans.
"Moussaoui lied so that murders could follow," prosecutor Robert Spencer said in his statement to the jurors. "Hold him accountable for causing those horrible deaths."
But the defense described Moussaoui as an eccentric al-Qaida bumbler - "in a nutshell, sound and fury accomplishing nothing" - who was not entrusted with any information critical to the plot. It used videotapes of former Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussing Sept. 11 bureaucratic failures to buttress its claim that the government was structurally unprepared to make use of any clues Moussaoui could have provided.
"You know Moussaoui is yearning for martyrdom," said defense lawyer Edward McMahon. "The only way he can achieve that dream and leave his smiling face on an al-Qaida recruiting poster is by your verdict. Please don't make him a hero. ... He just doesn't deserve it."
Moussaoui, a 37-year-old French-Moroccan, pleaded guilty in April to being part of a broad al-Qaida hijacking conspiracy, but said he was not part of the Sept. 11 plot. He admitted that he lied to allow his al-Qaida "brothers" to go forward, but prosecutors must prove that his silence "directly" contributed to deaths to obtain the death penalty.
Yesterday, Moussaoui, who has previously interrupted proceedings with tirades against America and his court-appointed lawyers, was largely quiet. Wearing a green jumpsuit and white cap and stroking his scraggly beard, he spoke only as he left the courtroom during an afternoon break. "All of this is an American creation," he said. "It has nothing to do with me."
While the broad themes of the opening day were expected - prosecutors played a video of an Osama bin Laden interview and a jihadist recruitment tape, and evoked images of office workers peacefully sipping coffee before the planes hit to lay an emotional foundation - some details were new.
Empanelled hours earlier, 10 men and seven women listened from the jury box. Across the hall, watching on closed circuit TV, Moussaoui's mother, Aicha, wept quietly when he entered court. One floor above, families of the Sept. 11 victims also watched on TV. Outside, snipers clad in black fatigues guarded the building.
Spencer said he would prove that if Moussaoui had admitted he was a terrorist, FBI agents would have traced a wire transfer he received back to Germany and from there to the United Arab Emirates, then linked it to a cell phone number there, then linked that number to nine U.S. calls made with pre-paid calling cards, and then linked the cards to eight numbers connected with hijackers in the United States.
In addition, he said, Moussaoui's belongings included listings of 19 flight schools in the U.S., and officials at three of them could have singled out the four Sept. 11 pilots. Federal aviation officials, Spencer said, would have put the names on a no-fly list, and Moussaoui's possession of a short-bladed knife would have led to a ban of such weapons on planes.
"The FBI and other government agencies would have put on an all-out press," Spencer argued.
But McMahon contended that the government's case was based on the theory that it would have conducted a "flawless investigation" in the 25 days between Moussaoui's arrest and Sept. 11, which he said was a "dream."
"The government's theory," he said, "is entirely speculative."
The 17 jurors included a high school math teacher who has traveled widely in the Middle East, a Navy veteran of the first Gulf War and an Iranian-born Sunni Muslim woman. The judge will designate five as alternates.
The final group included only two of 21 prospective jurors who had some connection to the Sept. 11 attacks or victims.
One was a woman whose brother-in-law works for the New York City Police Department and helped with rescue at the World Trade Center. The math teacher had a more remote connection: The fathers of two of her pupils are firefighters who responded to the crash at the Pentagon. She helped freshmen make a quilt to give to the fire department.
One woman who was seated said earlier that she would tend to assume an al-Qaida member is evil. Jurors also included a mental health researcher, a man whose father retired from the CIA just before Sept. 11, a man who serves in the military reserves and a federal government employee who said he thought there was a lack of communication between the FBI and CIA before the attacks.
Outside the courthouse, D. Hamilton Peterson of Bethesda, who lost his father, Donald, and stepmother, Jean, on the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, declared, "I believe Moussaoui is an excellent candidate for the death penalty."
Moussaoui broke into a smile when prosecutors played a 1998 ABC television interview with Osama bin Laden. He smiled again when prosecutors played an al-Qaida training tape that showed the bombing of the USS Cole in a Yemeni port in 2000.
John Riley writes for Newsday. The Associated Press contributed to this article.