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Moussaoui Disrupts First Day of Sentencing Trial

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The trial of Zacarias Moussaoui got off to a tumultuous start today. The defendant repeatedly interrupted efforts to select a jury and insisted that the judge allow him to tell his story. Each time, the judge had U.S. Marshals escort Moussaoui out of the courtroom.

NPR's Larry Abramson is at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. And, Larry, let's explain first that Zacarias Moussaoui has already pleaded guilty, and this trial has to do with the sentence that will be imposed.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

That's right, Melissa. Last April he admitted to six counts of complicity in the 9/11 plot. All along, though, he said that he didn't have an actual role in 9/11, that he was meant to take part in another attack. But, as you said, this penalty phase is going to decide first of all whether by lying to the FBI when he was arrested about 9/11 by not telling them about it, whether he was in fact partly guilty for that fact. And then, after that, whether or not there are aggravating factors that would justify giving him the death penalty.

BLOCK: Well describe what happened when Zacarias Moussaoui was brought into court today.

ABRAMSON: Well, first I should mention that only one reporter, a pool reporter, was allowed into the courtroom today because it was so crowded with only 120 jurors. So, I have this account from the pool reporter.

But each time, in four batches of jurors that came through, Moussaoui immediately stood up and said, I want to be heard. I want to testify. I do not want to be represented by these people, and he gestured to the three public defenders who've been representing him for years. H said, I am al-Qaeda, they are Americans. This trial is a circus. So, many of the same outbursts that we're familiar with from Moussaoui before.

And each time the Judge said that she would not allow him to talk, that he needed to sit down, and each time he persisted and kept saying that he wanted to testify and he wanted to tell his story.

BLOCK: Now, this isn't the first time that Moussaoui has fought against his court appointed attorneys.

ABRAMSON: That's right. He has actually asked the judge over and over again, over the years, to get rid of these court appointed attorneys. And at one point she did allow him to represent himself, but then he kept making these filings in court that were inflammatory, they were anti-Semitic in many cases, they didn't make any sense in some cases, and so she basically put his attorneys back on the job. And he's said over and over again that he thinks that these guys are trying to kill him, that they're basically an instrument of the government. And it raises an interesting question about how they're going to represent this guy, because they say, the attorneys, of course, say that they want to spare him the death penalty, that they don't think that he deserves the death penalty because he didn't really kill anybody on his own.

BLOCK: Well, what happens to the potential jurors who witnessed these outbursts today? Are they still possible jurors?

ABRAMSON: Yes. Each time the Judge asked the jurors, she said, If you are influenced by Mr. Moussaoui's actions in any way that would prevent you from being a fair and impartial juror, you need to note that on your questionnaires. There's a 49-page questionnaire that each of them received, and they were supposed to put down that, yeah, they were influenced somehow by his actions. And if they weren't, then they're supposed to say that.

These jurors fill out this questionnaire, which goes into great detail about 9-11, how much they know about the FBI, whether they're members of any organizations such as the NRA or the ACLU, a great deal of detail. And then the attorneys for both sides are going to look at these questionnaires over the next week, figure out what they can from these questionnaires about who can be fair, and then they will start voire dire, which of course is in-courtroom question and answer with the jurors.

BLOCK: Okay, Larry, thanks very much.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.

BLOCK: NPR's Larry Abramson in Alexandria, Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.