- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Montgomery County residents lived in mortal fear of being shot while jogging, shopping or filling their car tanks with gasoline for three weeks in October 2002.

Now, many are being asked to sit as impartial jurors at the trial of John Allen Muhammad, who has been charged with the six deaths that occurred in the county. Muhammad already has been convicted of one murder in Virginia and sentenced to death.

Mary Dimsey could not put aside her anger. Yesterday, she entered the courtroom, took a seat in the jury box, looked at Muhammad and said, “You are a filthy murderer. You deserve to die.”

Circuit Judge James L. Ryan admonished Miss Dimsey and excused her from jury duty. But Judge Ryan has kept many others for the next round of jury selection today, even though they said they already have formed opinions about Muhammad’s guilt or innocence. The key — and the legal standard — is whether they think they can set aside those opinions and judge the case based solely upon the facts presented in court.

The 12 jurors and four alternates will be chosen today from a pool of 80. They were among 300 people called for the jury selection process, which began Monday.

Notorious cases such as the Washington-area sniper shootings make it difficult to seat impartial juries, legal specialists say. But the challenge isn’t insurmountable, because the law recognizes that nobody lives in a vacuum.

“If prospective jurors could be dismissed if they said they have already formed an opinion, then there would be no jurors left for these high-profile cases,” said Robert Precht, a former federal public defender who represented one of the initial defendants charged in the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, when Muslim fundamentalists with a truck bomb killed six persons and injured more than 1,000.

Judge Ryan has rejected Muhammad’s motions to move the trial and to dismiss the entire jury pool, to the chagrin of his standby advisers.

“We believe the whole pool has been contaminated,” defense team member Russell Neverdon said. “Their whole lives were in fear. Now they have this perceived notion that it was Mr. Muhammad. I don’t think they have the courage to listen to this evidence.”

Elvio Leveri was dismissed from jury duty after telling Judge Ryan that there was “no chance” of his judging Muhammad impartially. Mr. Leveri, 73, said later that he remembered crouching beside his car at gas stations to avoid being shot.

“If I had a chance, I’d kill him,” Mr. Leveri said. “That man is vicious. He is a liar. As far as I’m concerned, he is diabolical.”

A minority of the prospective jurors have said they haven’t formed an opinion about the case. Muhammad has raised a standing objection to those who have said they could be impartial despite their opinions.

Muhammad, 45, and his accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, 21, were convicted in Virginia cases that were moved to jurisdictions outside the D.C. area because of the difficulty of seating impartial juries.

Muhammad was convicted in 2003 and sentenced to death. Malvo is serving a life sentence without parole.

In all, 10 persons were killed, and three others wounded in Maryland, Virginia and the District.

• AP writer Stephen Manning contributed to this article.

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