Potential juror quizzed on capital punishment as sniper trial jury selection continues

Wednesday, October 15th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) _ Lawyers on Wednesday began asking potential jurors whether they would be willing to sentence John Allen Muhammad to death if he is convicted of a fatal shooting during last year's sniper spree.

Prospective jurors _ a pool whittled to 71 on Tuesday, when jury selection began _ also will be asked individually about their exposure to pretrial news accounts and whether they felt terrorized by the shootings in metropolitan Washington.

After Wednesday's court session began, Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. summoned Juror 62 for one-on-one questioning. Jurors have been assigned a number to protect their privacy.

The juror said she could impose capital punishment for Muhammad if she felt it was warranted and had not formed an opinion on Muhammad's guilt or innocence. The juror also said she could set aside any pretrial publicity about the case because ``I expect to hear the truth here.''

The next potential juror said she would have a hard time imposing the death penalty. ``I would rather not have it on my conscience,'' she said.

Prosecutor Paul Ebert tried to have her struck from the panel, but the judge sided with the defense and approved the woman.

Both were among four prospective jurors _ all women _ who were approved Wednesday morning and will be among the 27 jurors that must be impaneled. Each side then will get to strike six people, without providing a justification, leaving a jury of 12 plus three alternates.

Ebert said earlier that he hoped to have the jury seated by the end of the day Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the 42-year-old Muhammad pleaded innocent to the October 2002 slaying of 53-year-old Dean Harold Meyers as he filled up at a gas station near Manassas.

Muhammad's trial was moved about 200 miles to this southeastern Virginia city after defense lawyers argued that every northern Virginia resident could be considered a victim because the shootings caused widespread fear.

Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, are accused of carrying out 13 shootings, 10 of them fatal, in a three-week period in October 2002 that spread terror across the Washington metropolitan area. Malvo goes on trial Nov. 10 in neighboring Chesapeake for the slaying of an FBI analyst.

After Muhammad entered his plea Tuesday, jury selection began. Millette excused 53 of 124 potential jurors, mostly because work or personal reasons prevented them from sitting through a trial expected to last six weeks.

Ebert asked prospective jurors Tuesday ``if anyone cannot believe an older person can direct and control the actions of a 17-year-old.''

Prosecutors have said Muhammad is guilty even if Malvo pulled the trigger because Muhammad served as the ``instigator and moving spirit.'' Malvo's lawyers intend to pursue an insanity defense, saying Muhammad had so ``indoctrinated'' his young companion that Malvo could no longer tell right from wrong.

Muhammad's lawyer, Peter Greenspun, later asked potential jurors if ``anyone does not believe a 17-year-old has free will to make their own decisions about their actions.''

No potential jurors raised their hands to either question.

Two people were excused because they said their exposure to pretrial news reports would make it impossible to render an unbiased verdict.

About a dozen people raised concerns about their own exposure to news accounts but were excused for other reasons.

Muhammad faces two counts of capital murder. One charge is under an anti-terrorism law passed by the Legislature after the Sept. 11 attacks; it has never been used. Prosecutors will have to show not only that Muhammad participated in a slaying, but that the intent was to influence the government or to intimidate the civilian population.

The other capital charge accuses Muhammad of multiple murders over three years. Prosecutors will have to prove Muhammad's involvement in the Meyers killing and at least one other fatal shooting.