Jury selection begins in Christmas Day bombing trial

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 04, 2011 8:08 AM
Jury selection begins in Christmas Day bombing trial

By James B. Kelleher

DETROIT (Reuters) - Final jury selection began on Tuesday in the terror trial of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

The 24-year-old former student 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.

Abdulmutallab has said he wants to represent himself at the trial, which could make this week's normally routine process of picking a jury panel unpredictable.

During a pretrial hearing last month, Abdulmutallab muttered "Osama's alive" to some spectators as he was brought into the courtroom and mumbled "jihad" when the judge used the phrase "al Qaeda" as she read the charges against him.

Some 250 potential jurors have already filled out questionnaires. Over the next few days, that pool will be cut to 12 jurors and four alternates.

Opening arguments are scheduled to begin October 11.

Abdulmutallab is accused of attempting to detonate an explosive device sewn into his underwear as Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam approached Detroit nearly two years ago. But the device malfunctioned and burned Abdulmutallab, who was then overpowered by other passengers.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of the group based in Yemen, claimed responsibility for the attack. The attempted bombing was also praised by Osama bin Laden in 2010.

In the aftermath of the failed Christmas Day bombing, the United States authorized the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlawki, an American living in Yemen linked to Abdulmutallab and killed by a U.S. drone attack last week.

Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army psychiatrist who is accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas in November 2009, also allegedly had links to al-Awlawki.

The Abdulmutallab case highlighted a number of glaring intelligence failures on the part of the United States and its allies.

A month before the December 2009 attack, intelligence officers intercepted separate communications out of Yemen that indicated a man named "Umar Farouk" had volunteered for a coming al Qaeda operation and that a Nigerian was being trained for a suicide attack.

In addition, Abdulmutallab's father, a prominent Nigerian banker, warned U.S. Embassy personnel weeks before the attack that his son had adopted extreme religious and anti-American views.

Even so, Abdulmutallab was never put on the so-called "no-fly list."

In September, Abdulmutallab asked the judge hearing the case, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds, to suppress statements he made as he was being treated for those burns at a hospital, including an admission that he was acting on behalf of al Qaeda -- because his FBI interrogators failed to alert him to his right to remain silent.

Edmunds denied the request, saying considerations of public safety in the immediate hours after the botched bombing overrode Abdulmutallab's rights in the immediate aftermath of the attempted bombing.

Although Abdulmutallab has chosen to act as his own lawyer and to represent himself at trial, a standby defense attorney has also been appointed by the court.

The court-appointed lawyer has been providing Abdulmutallab with assistance in filing pretrial motions and may help him with jury selection. But the Nigerian has told the court he wants to give the opening statement and closing argument and he may also examine and cross-examine witnesses.

(Additional reporting by Meghana Keshavan; Editing by Jerry Norton)