7 qualified jurors so far in Fort Dix case

October 7, 2008 11:58:43 AM PDT
The complex and sometimes tedious process of probing the biases of prospective jurors began Tuesday in the case of five men accused of planning to attack soldiers on Fort Dix. Lawyers on Tuesday morning asked questions of 11 potential jurors, examining whether they could be fair even if they thought Islam encouraged violence or they had family in the military.

Four of those first 11 were dismissed. The other seven remain in a pool of qualified jurors and have a chance of sitting in judgment of the five defendants.

The suspects were arrested in May 2007 and are accused of plotting to raid Fort Dix, an Army installation used largely to train reservists for deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. No attack was carried out.

The men, all foreign-born Muslims in their 20s who have lived many years in southern New Jersey suburbs, could face life in prison if they're convicted on all counts, which include attempted murder and conspiracy to murder uniformed military personnel.

The case received massive attention around the world in early days as the government presented it as one of the most frightening examples of homegrown working terrorists in the U.S.

Because of the sensitivity of the case, the attention it's received, and the expectation that the trial could last about two months, picking a jury was expected to be challenging.

About 1,500 jurors were asked to appear. After some didn't respond and hundreds were excused because of various reasons, including economic hardship, more than 600 filled out questionnaires last week. By Tuesday morning, the pool had been whittled down to just under 300.

U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler said he intends to find close to 100 who could serve fairly so that the opening statements could begin around Oct. 20.

Those remaining in the pool are being questioned one by one in open court with the suspects present, who for the first time since their arrests, are wearing business suits rather than jail-issued jumpsuits.

It got off to a slow start Tuesday, with the first three to appear for questioning in court being excused.

The first one may have been one of the hardest cases.

The woman said she is the wife of a retired New Jersey National Guard member who served about a year in Cuba at Guantanamo Bay, where the U.S. is holding suspect terrorists rounded up abroad.

Assistant U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick asked if she could keep an open mind in light of that.

"I think I would have some difficulty," said the woman, whose name, like those of others called on the case, is not being made public - even to the attorneys questioning her.

For 45 minutes, lawyers on both sides grilled the woman on a number of topics, including her opinion of Islam, whether she would hold it against the defendants if they did not testify, and whether she could separate the case from the people she's known who have served at Fort Dix.

After she left the courtroom, defense lawyer moved for her to be dismissed.

Kugler said the lawyers were being to picky. "If you think we're going to find 18 automatons who have no experience or opinions, we're going to be here for a century," he said.

Still, he agreed that that juror had too many biases to serve and excused her.

Jurors who were qualified included a federal employee with a 4-year-old daughter and a history of migraines, a woman who said she's prefer that everyone was a Christian and one who said she struggles to make the right decisions.

They could still be excused from the case by lawyers using pre-emptory challenges - which the lawyers need not explain.

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