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Jury Selection Begins in First Sniper Trial

John Allen Muhammad pleads not guilty to two counts of capital murder and other charges.

October 15, 2003|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Speaking with a soldier's clipped brevity, serial sniper defendant John Allen Muhammad proclaimed his innocence Tuesday at the start of his murder trial, then sat mutely as lawyers began selecting a jury that could sentence him to death.

Muhammad was led into the courtroom under heavy guard nearly a year after he and teenage co-defendant Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested and charged in the three-week rampage of long-range rifle fire that mortally wounded 10 victims in the Washington area and turned daily life into an ordeal.

A Persian Gulf War veteran accused by prosecutors of acting as the captain of a "killing team," Muhammad offered a terse "not guilty" four times as Prince William County Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. read two capital murder counts and conspiracy and firearms charges against him.

"I understand what the charges are," he told the judge.

Muhammad's appearance was followed by a painstaking, daylong effort to select a panel of 12 jurors and three alternates from a pool of 123 Virginia Beach residents. Under questioning by the judge and trial lawyers, more than a third of the jury candidates worried aloud that they would suffer personal or financial hardships if they served on a murder case expected to last six weeks.

By day's end, Millette had excused 51 jury candidates. Prosecutors said that opening arguments might start by Thursday. Legal observers cautioned that Muhammad's defense team likely would scrutinize potential jurors, trying to determine who could consider sparing his life if he were convicted.

Muhammad could be executed if found guilty of the Oct. 9, 2002, killing of Dean Meyers, a Maryland civil engineer slain at a gas station in the Washington suburb of Manassas, Va. Malvo, 18, has been charged separately with another sniper-related death and will stand trial next month.

Muhammad was led into the courtroom early Tuesday through an underground concrete tunnel from a county jail where he was housed in an 80-square-foot cell. He was flown under guard Saturday to Virginia Beach from the Prince William County Detention Center.

Before Muhammad walked into the courtroom, deputies removed his manacles and shackles so jury candidates would not see him in restraints. He wore civilian clothes for the first time in a year, his rumpled orange prison jump suit replaced by gray pants and tie and a pressed white shirt.

When Millette asked him if he was ready for trial, Muhammad replied: "I'm prepared for it."

Muhammad then sat, chin in hands, as the judge began questioning prospective jurors to see whether they would be willing to sit in on his trial. Some candidates began to balk as soon as Millette raised the prospect of hardship. A veterinarian worried aloud that his business would be neglected. An expectant father nervously imagined missing his child's birth.

The judge excused them both -- among dozens dropped from the jury pool because of financial and personal burdens. Then, Millette sat back as attorneys began probing the hearts and minds of the prospective jurors who remained, trying to learn how many would be willing to sit in judgment on Muhammad.

County Commonwealth Atty. Paul B. Ebert gave a hint of prosecutors' courtroom strategy when he asked jury candidates whether they would be able to convict "an older person" for taking "control or [directing] the actions of a 17-year-old."

Prosecutors claim that Muhammad was an active partner in the killings, even though no evidence points to Muhammad as the one who fired the rifle. None of the jurors indicated any problem with that theory.

Similarly, echoing a defense strategy to try to shift blame to Malvo, Peter D. Greenspun, a lawyer for Muhammad, asked prospective jurors whether they could believe that a 17-year-old would have had the "free will" to commit the sniper killings. The jury candidates indicated they could.

They also expressed no reservations when Greenspun asked how they might react if Muhammad testified on his own behalf.

The judge excused at least a dozen prospective jurors who said they were affected by pretrial publicity. That concern led to Millette's decision to move the trial from Manassas, Va., where Meyers was shot to death in October 2002, to Virginia Beach.

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