Selecting an unbiased jury a challenge in first sniper shootings trial

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

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) _ A year after a series of deadly sniper shootings terrified Washington-area residents, defense lawyers say they face trying circumstances in the death-penalty trial of 42-year-old suspect John Allen Muhammad.

The case, which opens Tuesday and 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.

About 120 potential jurors will be brought to the courtroom in groups of 40 to fill out a lengthy questionnaire.

Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. ordered that jurors be questioned individually about such sensitive issues as their views on the death penalty, their knowledge of the case and whether they or their family felt terrorized the spree. Individual questioning is intended to ensure that potential jurors 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.