Jury selection continues in first trial in deadly Washington-area sniper spree

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

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) _ Lawyers in the case of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad want to know what's on the minds of 71 remaining prospective jurors: Were they scared as last year's shootings gripped the Washington area? Could they handle being responsible for a death sentence?

Jury selection was to resume Wednesday, the day after 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.

Lawyers on both sides are focusing on prospective jurors' thoughts on pretrial media coverage and personal safety. Prosecutor Paul Ebert said he hoped to have 12 jurors and three alternates picked by Wednesday.

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, jury selection began. Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. 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.