Bomb-plot trial begins with jury selection

Bomb-plot trial begins with jury selection
A courtroom sketch of Mohamed Mohamud during jury selection on Thursday. (Sketch by Deborah Marble)

Jury selection began Thursday morning in the trial of an Oregon State University student accused of attempting to set off a bomb at Portland’s annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in 2010.

Mohamed Mohamud is charged in U.S. District Court with attempt to use a weapon of mass destruction, a penalty that could bring a maximum sentence of life in prison.

On the first day of trial at the downtown Portland courthouse, about 86 people were called to the jury pool. After prospective jurors spent the morning filling out questionnaires, Judge Garr King narrowed the pool to 76 people. By the afternoon, the pool was whittled down to about 50.

Jury selection will continue Thursday afternoon and is expected to continue until at least Monday, followed by attorneys’ opening statements. The trial is scheduled to last about four weeks.

Because of the size of the jury pool, only the judge, attorneys, defendant and jurors were in the courtroom. Reporters and members of the public, including nearly two dozen of Mohamud’s family, were directed to sit in a separate courtroom and watch the proceedings on an overhead projector.

Dressed in a cream-colored sweater, Mohamud appeared engaged in the process, leaning forward, jotting notes and conferring often with one of his attorneys.

Federal prosecutors are expected to paint Mohamud -- a 19-year-old OSU student at the time of the Nov. 26, 2010, event – as a jihad extremist since his early teen years, who took the opportunity of the tree-lighting to carry out his long-held violent views.

Federal public defenders, on the other hand, have said Mohamud, who attended high school in Beaverton, was a young, impressionable teen who fell victim to entrapment by FBI agents. Mohamud’s attorneys said in court documents that he never intended to be violent, but was enticed to plan the bomb plot by the overzealous agents who posed as jihad co-conspirators.

The 1,800-pound bomb was fake; Mohamud was arrested after he tried to detonate it the evening of the tree-lighting by dialing a number on a cellphone.

Several questions in the jury questionnaire touched on the topics of the Middle East, Islam and terrorism. One question asked potential jurors if they had a spouse or family who was killed while serving in combat in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East.

Another question prompted the jurors to detail their religious background and whether they are close to anyone who practices Islam.

One of the final questions: Whether jurors could separate their opinion on terrorism in deciding a verdict.

“…It is important for the jurors to understand that these general subjects are not the subject of the indictment in this case,” the questionnaire said.

Several people, who told the judge they couldn’t separate their opinions on terrorism, were excused from serving on the 12-member jury. They included a man who said a childhood friend was killed in an attack in Libya and a woman who said her uncle was an employee at the Pentagon during the Sept. 11 attacks.

The questionnaire told jurors the trial could last until Feb. 12.

More: Read the full jury questionnaire