By James B. Kelleher
DETROIT (Reuters) - The Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day 2009 called the United States a "cancer" on Tuesday just before jury selection began in his federal trial in Michigan.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, whose attempted bombing led to a further tightening of U.S. aviation security, also blurted out "Anwar is alive," an apparent reference to al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki who was linked to the defendant and killed by a U.S. drone attack in Yemen last week.
Abdulmutallab is charged with attempting to detonate explosives sewn into his underwear as Northwest Flight 253 approached Detroit from Amsterdam. The device malfunctioned and burned Abdulmutallab, who was then overpowered by other passengers.
The outbursts and a brief examination of a potential juror by Abdulmutallab himself punctuated what was otherwise a routine process in the run-up to the trial, set to begin with opening arguments on October 11 and last about a month.
London-educated Abdulmutallab, who has said he wants to represent himself at the trial, was dressed in an oversized white T-shirt and sat quietly at his defense table as court was called to order.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds advised him he might want to wear a shirt with a collar to make a better impression on jurors.
Abdulmutallab, 24, at first indicated he did not want to wear the Western clothes his court-appointed standby counsel had purchased for him, but acceded and court was adjourned briefly while U.S. Marshals took him away to put on more formal clothes.
When the court reconvened a few minutes later, Abdulmutallab was dressed in a black jacket with thin pinstripes over a tan-colored robe and baggy pants. He was also wearing a black skull cap.
The Nigerian is charged with eight felonies, including conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism, attempted murder and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. He faces life in prison if convicted of the botched suicide bombing.
Al Qaeda's resurgent Yemen-based arm claimed responsibility for the failed 2009 attack, which was also praised by Osama bin Laden in 2010, months before the al Qaeda leader was killed in a U.S. commando raid in Pakistan.
More than 250 potential jurors filled out questionnaires in September and a small subset was present on Tuesday for the preliminary round of questioning. Judge Edmunds focused on whether the prospective jurors could be fair and impartial.
She has said she wants to winnow the 250 down over the next two days to a group of 37 to 45 finalists, from which a panel of 12 jurors and four alternates will be picked on Thursday.
By the end of Tuesday, 27 potential jurors had been questioned, and 16 women and four men had made the preliminary grade while seven others were excused.
The first potential juror called on Tuesday, a former Detroit police officer, was quickly dismissed. The second, a secretary in the auto industry, lasted a little longer.
But when asked by Edmunds if she thought she could withhold judgment unless the government established Abdulmutallab's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, she said, "I don't think so."
"He tried to kill 300 innocent people ... I feel he's very guilty."
The judge, the attorneys, and at one point Abdulmutallab himself quizzed most of the potential jurors on their answers to a question on the preliminary questionnaire asking whether they would be concerned about reactions to the verdict.
Abdulmutallab, who studied at University College, London, asked one juror if she agreed that an angry reaction could be triggered by a not guilty verdict as well as a guilty verdict.
She agreed and neither side dismissed her from the pool.
Abdulmutallab never addressed a potential juror again. But he remained attentive throughout the proceeding, conferring from time to time with his court-appointed standby counsel.
Potential jurors were also repeatedly grilled by both sides over whether they had formed any feelings or opinions about the case or Abdulmutallab prior to their appearance in court as a result of the media coverage.
"It seems like something happened," one potential juror said. "His pants were on fire." But she went on to say she believed she could take a fresh look at the case based strictly on the evidence the government provided and could wind up on the final jury.
(Additional reporting by Meghana Keshavan; Editing by David Bailey and Greg McCune)