BOSTON – As a Massachusetts man charged with conspiring to support al-Qaida went on trial Monday, potential jurors were being quizzed, likely about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden and electronic surveillance of private conversations.
Tarek Mehanna, 29, of Sudbury, an affluent suburb west of Boston, is accused of plotting to get training in a terrorist camp and to kill U.S. troops in Iraq. Prosecutors allege that after Mehanna was unable to get into a terror training camp in Yemen, he began seeing himself as part of the "media wing" of al-Qaida, and started translating and distributing text and videos over the Internet in an attempt to inspire others to engage in violent jihad.
Mehanna's lawyers say he went to Yemen to seek religious study, not terrorist training. They argue that his online activities amount to free speech protected by the First Amendment.
Jury selection in the high-profile trial is expected to take at least several days.
U.S. District Judge George O'Toole Jr. began Monday by outlining the charges for a pool of 60 people called for jury duty. He then asked a series of general questions such as whether they or anyone close to them has ever worked for a law enforcement agency, been a victim of or accused of a crime, or served in the U.S. military over the last 10 years.
O'Toole then began questioning jurors individually in his chambers, with only Mehanna, his lawyers and prosecutors present. The judge rejected a request from news organizations to witness the individual questioning, so it was not clear exactly what questions were being asked.
But in court documents filed last week, Mehanna's lawyers asked the judge to question prospective jurors about whether they have any family or close personal friends who were directly affected by Sept. 11 and if they attended any memorial service commemorating Sept. 11.
The defense also asked for prospective jurors to be questioned about whether evidence that Mehanna greatly admired bin Laden would make it difficult for them to be impartial. Mehanna's lawyers also want the judge to ask jurors whether they could be impartial after hearing evidence that Mehanna, an American-born Muslim, supported the destruction of the World Trade Center.
Prosecutors focused their proposed questions on attitudes about how some evidence against Mehanna was collected. They asked the judge to question jurors on whether they believe the use of electronic wiretaps is unfair and would make them unable to be impartial in evaluating the evidence against Mehanna. The government also wants the judge to ask if jurors have any "fixed feelings or impressions" about Arabs or Muslims that would make it difficult for them to listen to the evidence with an open mind.
The judge told the jury pool that the trial is expected to last about two months, which prompted audible gasps from some members of the group.
Opening statements by prosecutors and defense attorneys are expected Thursday, if jury selection is completed by then.
Mehanna faces a possible life sentence if convicted.