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For Sniper Victim's Family, Grief Lingers as Trial Starts

Jury selection begins today in Virginia in the case against Gulf War vet John Allen Muhammad.

October 14, 2003|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

MANASSAS, Va. — There are no memorials at the gas pump where Dean Meyers was gunned down a year ago. At dusk, traffic sweeps by pump four at the Battlefield Sunoco without any hint of menace. Drivers wait idly while their tanks fill, oblivious to the memory of the man whose killing will take center stage this week at the murder trial of serial sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad.

"They just stand there like it never happened," said J.R. Rodriguez, the burly service station attendant who was on duty the night of Oct. 9, 2002, when Meyers toppled to the pavement in Virginia's Prince William County, a suburban area 25 miles southwest of the nation's capital.

An engineer who had stopped after work to gas up en route to his Maryland home, Meyers, 53, was the seventh of 10 victims killed during the three-week frenzy of long-range death. As grieving brothers buried the lifelong bachelor in rural Pennsylvania, snipers ranged like invisible men across the highways surrounding Washington, D.C., convulsing an entire metropolitan region in panic.

The fear has evaporated, but its public residue lingers.

Muhammad's trial opens today in Virginia Beach, Va., shifted 200 miles away from the crime scene by a judge worried about finding an impartial jury. Prosecutors have filled a storeroom with evidence exhibits and will call scores of witnesses to press for Muhammad's conviction and execution. The beleaguered defense team is struggling to overcome not only the government's powerful circumstantial evidence and widespread media coverage, but also Muhammad's taciturn defiance.

Muhammad, 42, a 1991 Gulf War veteran turned drifter, is charged separately from his co-defendant, Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, whose murder trial starts next month. While Malvo has admitted that he was the triggerman in many of the slayings and now plans to mount an insanity defense, Muhammad has said little to police and refuses to meet with psychiatric examiners.

Muhammad's stony mien and bare-bones compliance are consistent with "a soldier's affect," said one lawyer who observed the suspect in jail. Like a prisoner of war volunteering nothing to his captors, Muhammad "has stayed disciplined, but it hasn't helped him. You get the sense he's playing soldier, someone who's lost control but is desperately pretending that he still knows what to do."

The jury-selection process that begins today could well become the most critical phase in Muhammad's trial. Legal observers said his defense team would seek neutral jurors who remained unswayed by the terror of a year ago. Also, they would likely try to pick jurors sophisticated enough to understand the legal and moral nuances of capital punishment and willing to consider sparing Muhammad's life if he is convicted.

The Muhammad trial -- which could last up to eight weeks and cost more than $1.2 million -- is expected to help explain why two drifters said to be on a cross-country armed-robbery spree allegedly began stalking humans as random targets.

Muhammad has been portrayed as a man consumed by fury after a failed marriage. There is also a possible financial motive: He and Malvo are accused of leaving notes at two shooting scenes in an attempt to extort $10 million to end the killings -- although the demands came well after nine victims had died.

The precise tipping point for Muhammad's rage remains undefined. "These were a couple of low-rent losers. Why they did what they did is anybody's guess," said a senior official of the police task force that tracked down the sniper suspects.

"I can't begin to imagine what would drive these people to hunt down my brother like an animal," said Greg Meyers, 57, a graphic artist who lives five miles from his brother's churchside grave in Perkiomenville, Pa.

It was Dean Meyers' killing that allowed Prince William County prosecutors to try Muhammad on murder charges and seek his execution. After Muhammad and Malvo were arrested on a federal warrant last October, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft handed them over to Virginia authorities because both were eligible there for the death penalty.

Larry Meyers, an older brother of the slain man, has been summoned to appear as a prosecution witness. Another brother recently read a tribute to Dean Meyers at a memorial service for the sniper victims. But overwhelmed by raw memories, Greg Meyers plans to stay home during the trial, saying he's "too broke up to talk about it in public."

Everywhere he turns in his wooded town an hour north of Philadelphia, Greg Meyers finds haunting reminders of his brother. A sloping field where he walks his dogs once housed their old baseball diamond. A trip to his father's toolshed turned up a faded sign from the boys club that Dean once headed.

Greg Meyers said he wanted Muhammad convicted quickly. "I just wish I could be a juror so I could have his fate in my hands," he said. Like many, his mind is already made up.

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