MIAMI — Finding lingering emotions from the Sept. 11 terror attacks emerged as central to questioning prospective jurors Tuesday in the third trial of a group accused of plotting with al-Qaida to destroy Chicago's Sears Tower and blow up FBI offices.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers want to ensure that the jurors ultimately chosen to hear the case against the six men accused of being a budding al-Qaida cell do not have biases because of the attacks more than seven years ago.
"Have the events of Sept. 11 or any other terrorist act affected you to such an extent that it would make it difficult for you to sit and listen to evidence in this case and be fair to both the government and the defendants?" was one question for the first 34 potential jurors.
Most jurors said they believed they could set aside any Sept. 11-related feelings and be impartial. But some were not so sure.
"I think so. It's hard to say," said a woman who described herself as a Roman Catholic. The jurors' identities are being kept secret. "I have a problem with people who use religion to justify crime."
Another female juror said she thinks "the government has gone overboard" in the war on terror. Later, U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard said that juror was overheard by court security personnel telling the others that "they're never going to convict" in the Miami case. Prosecutors sought to have her struck for bias.
The group's leader, Narseal Batiste, 34, and the other five men are facing a third trial after two previous cases ended in hung juries. A seventh man was acquitted after the first trial, but the U.S. is moving to deport him to his native Haiti.
The process to pick 12 jurors and six alternates is expected to take a week or more, followed by an estimated two-month trial.
Prosecutors claim the group was intent on using the Sears Tower attack to ignite a broad insurrection against the U.S. government. Each of the six faces up to 70 years in prison if convicted of four charges, including conspiracy to levy war against the U.S. and conspiracy to support al-Qaida.
There is no evidence the men ever took any steps toward pulling off an attack. When they were arrested in 2006, the Bush administration trumpeted the case as a prime example of the strategy of heading off terrorists in the earliest possible stages.
Batiste and one other suspect have been jailed for over two years. The other four were released on bail after the second mistrial.
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