Sniper suspect trial under way; Muhammad enters innocent pleas

Tuesday, October 14th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) _ John Allen Muhammad entered innocent pleas Tuesday as the death-penalty trial of the sniper suspect got under way a year after a series of deadly shootings terrified the Washington area.

Muhammad, 42, pleaded innocent to capital murder and firearms charges. He initially remained silent when asked a routine question by Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr., but later answered after whispering with an attorney.

Muhammad, wearing a white button-down shirt and tie, told Millette he understood the charges and that he was ready for the trial.

``I'm prepared for it, yes,'' he said.

The case, which is expected to last up to six weeks, was moved some 200 miles out of metropolitan Washington to this southeastern Virginia city after defense lawyers argued that every northern Virginia resident could be considered a victim because the shootings made them afraid.

Even so, some legal experts have said it will be difficult to select impartial jurors from a community where people may still have felt vulnerable as the attacks mounted. Intense media coverage of the case will also make it difficult to find unbiased jurors.

Some 120 potential jurors were being brought to the courtroom in groups of around 40 to fill out a lengthy questionnaire. Muhammad stood and said nothing to the first group while the defense and prosecutors said, ``Good morning.'' By early afternoon, 80 jurors had been brought into the courtroom.

The judge excused 30 potential jurors. Two were excused because they said they had heard so much about the case they couldn't render a verdict based solely on the courtroom evidence. The rest said they couldn't take time off work for the trial because of financial hardship.

Millette warned the prospective jurors they would have to disregard pretrial publicity. They were to be questioned individually later about what they knew about the case and how they felt about sensitive issues such as the death penalty. Individual questioning is intended to ensure they are not influenced by each other's answers.

Muhammad's defense lawyers, Peter Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro, have also expressed serious concerns that law-enforcement leaks already have hurt their client's chances of getting a fair trial.

Police violated a court order prohibiting them from discussing evidence with reporters ``because they feel like nobody is going to complain that Mr. Muhammad's rights were violated,'' Greenspun said.

Shapiro also says the defense has suffered under Virginia rules that severely limit what prosecutors are required to disclose before trial.

``We're as prepared as the law in Virginia has allowed us. There is a wall, behind which there is a ton of information we just don't know,'' Shapiro said.

Outside the courthouse Tuesday morning, the two defense lawyers took no questions from reporters but Greenspun thanked Virginia Beach residents ``for their graciousness in accepting this trial.'' He added: ``We hope to have a fair trial with the help of the citizens of Virginia Beach.''

Paul Ebert, a prosecutor from Prince William County where the case originated, dismissed the idea that leaks have rendered the defense unprepared. In fact, he said, a recently published book with inside information from law enforcement actually revealed more information than defense attorneys would otherwise have been entitled to receive.

Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, are charged with 13 shootings, including 10 deaths, over a three weeks last October that left many Washington area residents ducking for cover as they filled gas tanks and ran errands.

Muhammad faces two counts of capital murder for the shooting of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, of Gaithersburg, Md., while he pumped gas at a Sunoco station near Manassas on Oct 9, 2002.

One charge is under an anti-terrorism law passed by the state legislature after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It has never been prosecuted. The state will have to show not only that Muhammad participated in a murder, but that the intent was to influence the government or to intimidate the civilian population.

The other capital charge alleges multiple murders over three years. Prosecutors will have to prove Muhammad's involvement in the Meyers killing and at least one other fatal shooting to obtain a conviction under that count.

Defense lawyers argue Muhammad can get the death penalty on this count only if he was the triggerman, while prosecutors say recent case law shows they need only prove Muhammad was the ``instigator and moving spirit'' of the murders.

Malvo goes on trial Nov. 10 in neighboring Chesapeake for a fatal shooting last October outside a Home Depot in Fairfax County. His lawyers intend to pursue an insanity defense, saying Muhammad had so indoctrinated his young companion that Malvo could no longer tell right from wrong.