VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - It's the hottest ticket in town right now, a seat in the tiny courtroom where Washington-area sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad is fighting for his life.
And it will take luck - not money - to snag one.
Courtroom 10 stretches back just five rows, with seating for 50 spectators. Many of the spaces are reserved for the media and for members of the sniper task force. But a lottery system is giving anyone who is interested a chance to grab one of five spots available to the public for each day of the trial, which could last four to six weeks.
More than 2,100 people put their names in via the Internet and telephone hoping to get a seat. The list keeps growing and people are still allowed to sign up. People have come from as far away as Maryland and Northern Virginia, the regions that bore the brunt of fear over three weeks in October 2002, when snipers went on a random killing rampage.
Each week, the Virginia Beach Sheriff's Office is sending out letters notifying the chosen of which day they are expected in court. They can't trade. They must show up that day or lose their chance to sit in their courtroom seat, several feet away from Muhammad.
"I really wanted to see him up close," says Jo Murray, a Virginia Beach resident who sat in on the trial's first day. She got an unexpected treat: She saw opening arguments and witnessed Muhammad's brief stint as his own attorney.
For the first week of the trial, there wasn't time to send out letters, so Murray and her fellow trial-watchers got phone calls on the Friday night before. Still, Murray was able to take the day off from her job at nearby Oceana Naval Base and make it to court.
"I wanted to see what the defense was going to put on with the overwhelming evidence against them," she says.
Speaking to the public viewers gives a small glimpse into what kind of impression the defendant might be making on the jurors, who are in their assigned seats every day.
Murray isn't exactly impressed with Muhammad's legal skills: "He was a fool. His opening statement was a bunch of mumble-jumble. I don't see how he helped himself whatsoever. I think he did himself damage."
Patricia Moonis finds it a little harder to get the day off from her job: She is a stay-at-home mother of seven, ranging in age from 10 months to 12 years.
She talked her husband into taking a day off from his job so she could travel the 45 minutes from Newport News. She was more impressed with Muhammad, though by the time she arrived - two days after Murray - he had decided to let his attorneys back on the case.
On Moonis' day in court, the 18-year-old co-defendant, Lee Boyd Malvo, was brought into court in an orange jumpsuit to be identified by a witness. Muhammad "looks like an ordinary guy and Malvo looks like a kid," Moonis, 37, says. "If they came to my door, I would not have suspected a thing."
She was so fascinated by her day in court, she says, "I want to go every day now."
Most of those captivated by the trial in a case that gripped the region have to settle for snippets of information on the evening news or accounts in the morning papers. It is not being broadcast on TV. Those coveted courtroom seats are the only way for members of the public to see any of the action themselves.
This week, Adam Goodman, a 23-year-old journalism major at the University of Maryland in College Park, is among those in the courtroom. When he got the letter from the sheriff's office, at first he wondered, "what did I do wrong?" Then he remembered the lottery.
He lived through the events of a year ago. "They never struck anyone right around our area but everyone I knew was directly affected by it," he says.
This semester, he is living at home in Virginia Beach, doing tutoring, painting, any odd job someone will pay him to do. So he was happy to be called to witness the denouement of what he and others went through. "It'll be something I'll be able to remember," he says. "It's big news. It's just a story of interest."
A junkie of those Law and Order reruns and Court TV, 45-year-old Virginia Beach computer systems analyst Eunice Smith shares the back row with Goodman this week. She is surprised to see how freely Muhammad is allowed to move about the courtroom, going back and forth to the bench when his lawyers confer with the judge.
She is intrigued by the testimony she heard from Muhammad's first cousin Charlene Anderson, who described a visit from Muhammad and Malvo a month or two before the deadly shootings that began in Montgomery County.
Anderson testified that she let Muhammad and Malvo spend the night at her home in Baton Rouge, La., and that Muhammad showed her a military-style rifle. But she wouldn't let them stay another night. She had a funny feeling about her cousin's companion.
"She felt something strange about Malvo and she didn't know what, so she made an excuse to get him out," Smith says. "I probably would have done the same."
While Smith was glad to be chosen against fairly long odds to watch the trial, she wishes her luck had come through at a more fortuitous time.
"Too bad it wasn't the real lottery," she laughs. "Why couldn't I win that?"
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