- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH — John Allen Muhammad yesterday pleaded not guilty to capital murder charges in the death of a Gaithersburg man during the sniper shootings in the Washington area last October.

Wearing a beige shirt, gray tie and black slacks, the sniper suspect cast a stony, defiant image before the trial judge and potential jurors who eventually will decide his fate. Jury selection, which began yesterday after he entered the plea, will resume today.

Prince William County Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. asked the defendant a few basic questions and then inquired whether he was ready for trial.

“I’m prepared, sir,” Mr. Muhammad said in a clear but subdued voice.

He pleaded not guilty to two counts of capital murder, one count of conspiracy to commit murder and a firearms charge in the Oct. 9, 2002, shooting death of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, at a Sunoco station near Manassas.

Mr. Muhammad faces the death penalty, if convicted of the murder charges — one filed under Virginia’s antiterrorism statute, which the state legislature passed after the September 11 attacks to target “evil masterminds,” and a second filed under a Virginia law that makes the murder of two or more persons within a three-year period punishable by death.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys yesterday made rapid progress in seating a jury of 12 persons and three alternates by narrowing a pool of 123 local residents to 70 by the day’s end. Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert said a jury could be seated as early as today.

“We got a lot done,” Judge Millette said.

Only two potential jurors were excluded because they said they could not be impartial owing to pretrial publicity. Others who expressed concern about the pretrial publicity were excluded for other reasons.

The jury pool currently consists of 38 white women, 22 white men, five black women, three black men, one Asian woman and one Asian man.

Judge Millette in July decided to move the trial more than 200 miles from where the crime occurred and chose Virginia Beach because its demographics resemble those of Prince William County. Defense attorneys argued that Northern Virginia residents would still be traumatized from the sniper shootings and unable to make unbiased decisions.

Mr. Muhammad, 42, and companion Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, are accused of killing 10 persons and wounding three during a three-week shooting spree in the greater Washington area last year.

The pair also are accused of nine other shootings, five of them fatal, across the country between February and September last year.

Mr. Malvo is scheduled to go on trial Nov. 10 in neighboring Chesapeake in the Oct. 14, 2002, death of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, 47, at a Home Depot in Falls Church. His attorneys have said they intend to offer an insanity plea, arguing that he was under the influence of the older sniper suspect.

Yesterday, the 123 potential jurors were divided into three groups and were questioned by Judge Millette about whether they could be impartial and serve throughout the trial’s expected six-week duration.

For each group, Judge Millette introduced the attorneys for both sides and Mr. Muhammad, who rose and turned to his right to look the prospective jurors in the eye. Each time, his eyes were wide open and his lips were pressed together tightly.

Attorneys then questioned the first group, and struck two women for cause. They will conduct individual interviews with members of the first group today before moving to the second and third groups.

Opposing strategies were evident in the questions each side asked.

“Is there anyone who cannot believe that a 42-year-old could control and direct the actions of a 17-year old?” Mr. Ebert asked the first group, pausing to hear their reply. There was silence.

Defense attorney Peter D. Greenspun countered Mr. Ebert’s question.

“Does anyone believe a 17-year-old does not have free will and the ability to make their own decisions about their actions and inactions?” he said. Again, no one spoke.

Mr. Ebert’s questioning lasted about 10 minutes and focused on jurors’ ability to delay making a decision on the suspect’s guilt until evidence is fully presented. He also asked whether anyone opposed the death penalty. Only one person said she wasn’t sure.

Mr. Ebert asked whether anyone had “ill will” toward law enforcement or government, had participated in ministry to prisoners, was employed by a law firm or had close ties to anyone in a law firm. A handful answered the last question, and then Mr. Ebert stood down.

“They’re all acceptable to the Commonwealth,” the prosecutor said.

Mr. Greenspun’s 45-minute questioning was more detailed and probed into whether prospective jurors had background, training in or ties to law enforcement, had been a victim of serious crime, and could carry on a presumption of the suspect’s innocence throughout the trial.

Mr. Greenspun asked whether Mr. Muhammad’s being black and a Muslim would impede jurors’ judgment. No one said it would. The defense attorney also asked the jurors whether they had worked with mentally ill people.

Mr. Greenspun and fellow defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro filed a motion Friday asking Judge Millette to allow a mental health expert to testify at trial, even though Mr. Muhammad last week refused to cooperate with a mental health expert for the prosecution.

“It’s our opinion that Virginia law would allow an expert to testify based on facts he is presented with in the courtroom. He doesn’t even need to speak to the defendant,” Mr. Shapiro told reporters after the day’s proceedings.

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