Opening arguments are scheduled for Tuesday in the trial of a man accused of detonating a homemade pipe bomb in a subway hallway beneath Times Square almost a year ago.
However, before the lawyers take their lecterns, jury selection must be completed. Monday, a few prospective jurors said they couldn't be fair in weighing the case, in part because of 9/11 and other terrorism in New York City.
For one potential juror, learning details of the alleged bombing by Akayed Ullah brought back memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in lower Manhattan.
“Having lived in New York City for 25 years, you become cognizant of these attacks,” said the middle-aged Asian woman, her voice briefly cracking. “We are more of a target … I’m quite conflicted.”
The woman told U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Sullivan that she witnessed the 9/11 attacks from the 50th floor of a building near the World Trade Center. She said she rushed to help a friend when a firefighter pushed her into a building vestibule, saving her from the debris shower when one of the towers collapsed.
“This is a little closer to home,” she said, referring to the pipe bomb case. “I don’t think I can be impartial. I think I would be harsher” on Ullah.
The judge dismissed the woman, along with eight others who he said couldn’t keep an open mind on the case for various reasons.
However, the judge acknowledged that 9/11 is never far from the thoughts of many New Yorkers. “It’s not that long ago. We all have memories,” he said in the packed courtroom in Manhattan.
Monday, he questioned 43 prospective jurors out of 75. There will be more questions on Tuesday.
In a private conference with attorneys on Monday, Sullivan again rejected a proposal from Ullah’s attorney Amy Gallicchio that every prospective juror be asked detailed questions about military service and reactions to 9/11 and other terrorist attacks.
The judge said, “What did 9/11 mean to you? I don’t think that’s necessary to ascertain if a juror could be impartial.”
Later, another prospective juror said she fears for her brother’s life during terrorist attacks in New York City.
“My brother has been an MTA train operator for 25 years,” the middle-aged woman said. “Anytime I hear about terrorism, I worry a lot about him. He’s underground.”
She added, “I’m less likely to be open minded, I think.” Sullivan dismissed her.
Prosecutors allege Ullah made the pipe bomb in his Brooklyn apartment, strapped it to his body and then attempted to blow himself up in a narrow hallway connecting subway stations under 42nd Street. The attack took place on Dec. 11 during the morning rush hour.
Ullah and three others were injured when he detonated the pipe bomb, which consisted of screws, Christmas lights and a 9-volt battery. No one died in the attack.
Prosecutors have said Ullah is a terrorist, pointing to statements he made after his arrest that he acted in aid of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.
Ullah, a Bangladeshi-born immigrant, faces up to life in prison on a six-count indictment charging him with providing material support to ISIS, use of a weapon of mass destruction, committing a terror attack against a mass transportation system, and other crimes. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The trial comes days after pipe bombs were discovered that were delivered to CNN’s Manhattan office and to prominent Democrats, including former President Barack Obama.
Monday, none of the prospective jurors said the recent attacks would prevent them from rendering a verdict.
Ullah was 27 at the time of the December attack. He was married and the father of a preschooler; both his wife and child were living in Bangladesh. Since coming to the United States in 2011, Ullah had worked as a car-service driver and an electrician.
Prosecutors allege that Ullah came to hate the United States after watching ISIS videos. Last week, Sullivan ruled that jurors could be shown the videos.