- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

The judge in the capital murder trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad said jury selection will be completed today and opening arguments will start Monday.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys continued yesterday to plod through the selection process, excusing more candidates than they approved. They ended the day needing to approve seven more jurors.

Prince William Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. said he is determined to have a complete jury by today so the opening statements could begin next week.

Six jury candidates were added to the 13 already approved Wednesday, but 10 candidates were excused for various reasons. Some said they already thought Mr. Muhammad was guilty, some were opposed to the death penalty and some said they feared for their lives during the sniper shootings that killed 10 and wounded three in the Washington area last year.

When the first jury candidate of the day, a middle-age woman, said she was “a little scared” when filling her car with gas during the shootings, Judge Millette granted the defense team’s request to remove her from the jury pool.

“She more closely fits the kind of juror we said we were concerned about in Northern Virginia, because she said she was frightened while pumping gas,” Judge Millette said.

Judge Millette and the judge in the trial of Mr. Muhammad’s co-defendant, Lee Boyd Malvo, moved the respective trials to the Hampton Roads area because they thought Northern Virginia residents were too traumatized by the shootings to serve as fair and impartial jurors.

Mr. Muhammad, 42, and Mr. Malvo, 18, have been linked to the 13 sniper shootings in the Washington area and nine others across the country. Those left five persons dead and four wounded.

Mr. Muhammad is charged with the Oct. 9 killing of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, at a Manassas gas station. Mr. Malvo goes on trial Nov. 10 in Chesapeake for the Oct. 14 shooting death of Linda Franklin, 47, at a Falls Church Home Depot.

Mr. Muhammad has pleaded not guilty to two counts of capital murder — one under the state’s new anti-terrorism 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.

Attorneys began jury selection process Tuesday with 123 candidates, then dismissed those who could not serve for personal or business reasons. They began questioning potential jurors Wednesday.

The attorneys must trim the pool to 27 jury candidates who have been questioned individually and approved by both sides and the judge. Each side then has six discretionary dismissals, or strikes, to winnow the jury to its final 12 jurors and three alternates.

There are now 20 approved candidates — 10 white females, six white men, three black women and one black man.

The jury candidates approved yesterday included a registered nurse, a retired Navy aircraft electrician chief who fought in Vietnam and logged 8,500 flight hours in his career, a Mercedes-Benz mechanic and an eighth-grade teacher with a master’s degree.

One of the women excused was the wife of a Virginia Beach deputy sheriff. The woman said her husband told her that he had been in daily contact with Mr. Muhammad during the course of his responsibilities in the jail.

Another women was excused because her internal conflict over the death penalty was so intense she would require the prosecutors to convince her “one hundred percent” of the defendant’s guilt. Prosecutors are required to prove his guilt only beyond a reasonable doubt.

“I would have said I was against it, but as I’ve thought about it I came to my own belief that if it was my own family involved, I would consider it,” said the woman, a second-grade teacher. Her voice quivered with emotion and she seemed on the verge of tears.

“She’s struggling so much with the concept that she would hold the commonwealth to a higher standard than the law provides,” said Paul B. Ebert, Prince William Commonwealth’s attorney. Judge Millette agreed.

Several jury candidates who were questioned about pretrial publicity said they did not trust the news media, but one young man who expressed that opinion was dismissed because he was certain of Mr. Muhammad’s guilt, based on what he saw on the TV news.

The number of jury candidates excused increased in part because defense attorneys and prosecutors were more precise in their questioning yesterday. However, toward the end of the day, their willingness to excuse candidates with only a cursory examination increased.

When a woman showed little ability to respond to Judge Millette’s questions, both sides conferred and agreed she should be excused.

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