- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH — With prosecutors and defense attorneys for John Allen Muhammad trading casual quips with potential jurors yesterday, it was easy to forget sometimes that the defendant’s life likely depends on who ends up seated on the 12-member panel.

“Feeling nervous today?” chief prosecutor Paul B. Ebert asked one potential juror, a bartender and mother of a 12-year old boy. The woman said she was. Mr. Ebert chuckled.

“Well, everybody does, don’t worry about it,” said the Prince William Commonwealth’s attorney.

On the second day of jury selection in the trial of the man accused of masterminding the Washington-area sniper attacks, attorneys on both sides of the aisle seemed to be making an effort to connect with the men and women in the narrowing pool of potential jurors.

For example, when the first potential juror, a woman, entered the courtroom, Mr. Ebert and his two assistant prosecutors rose in a conspicuous display of respect.

Defense attorneys who had appeared somewhat aloof a day earlier also seemed eager to establish a rapport. At times, the interview process seemed more like a casual conversation than a court proceeding.

“I’m Jon Shapiro, one of Mister Muhammad’s attorneys,” said Jonathan Shapiro. “We didn’t get a chance to talk yesterday, so here’s my big opportunity,” the veteran Washington-area attorney said.

Her son had said there would be no TV or newspapers, she told the court, because he wanted her to fulfill her “civic duty” of jury service. “I can’t even read my horoscopes. I haven’t seen anything but cartoons on Channel 29 for the last few days,” she said.

Mr. Shapiro smiled and said, “I’ve been there.”

Don’t be misled by the casual exchanges, observing attorneys said. Relating to jurors is a critical element of any high-stakes trial, and the way an attorney is dressed, how he speaks — even his body language — can create a positive connection.

“I think you win the case or lose the case in voir dire,” said Christopher J. Collins, a veteran Richmond defense attorney. “You have to end up with at least one person on the jury who is either uncomfortable with the death penalty or is open to the defense suggestion of life in prison.”

“You want them to feel comfortable with you and trust you and be honest about things that go to their souls,” said Chesterfield County Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Warren Von Schuch.

“What all good trial lawyers understand about juries is that they are there to provide common sense to what otherwise would be a purely legal process. The lawyers don’t want them to think like lawyers, they want them to think like people,” said Joseph Bowman, a D.C. lawyer who has defended several capital murder cases in Northern Virginia.

Mr. Muhammad, 42, is accused of leading a two-man shooting spree last year that left 10 persons dead. He’s on trial in Virginia Beach for the Oct. 9, 2002, slaying of Dean Harold Meyers, of Gaithersburg, at a Manassas gas station.

Mr. Muhammad’s co-defendant, Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, faces trial next month in Chesapeake. Both trials were moved to the Hampton Roads area because of concerns about seating an impartial jury in Northern Virginia.

Attorneys ended the second day of jury selection with 13 potential jurors. They will impanel 27 potential jurors before the last round of challenges, when both sides will have six strikes to pare the panel to 12 jurors and three alternates. The jury should be selected today.

The defendant has pleaded not guilty to two counts of capital murder, one under the state’s new antiterrorism statute and one for killing more than one person in three years. He is also charged with one count of conspiracy and one count of illegal use of a firearm.

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