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Sniper jury pool is thinned

Jurors queried in detail on death-penalty views; 'These are key questions'; 13 make preliminary cut; sorting continues today

By Stephen Kiehl

Sun Staff

October 16, 2003

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Attorneys began the lengthy task yesterday of whittling down the jury pool in the case of serial sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad and selected the first batch of potential jurors, who faced a battery of questions on issues ranging from the death penalty to the extensive publicity surrounding the trial.

Thirteen potential jurors made it through what amounted to a preliminary cut in the jury selection process. Those who were chosen yesterday included a former commanding officer in the Navy, a real estate agent, a grandmother of three and a bartender.

Today, lawyers will continue evaluating potential jurors, and the group will then be winnowed to 12 jurors and three alternates who will sit in the jury box when opening statements begin, now expected on Monday.

Muhammad, who wore an olive blazer and black slacks in court, sat on the edge of his chair for most of the day as he listened intently to the questioning of potential jurors and occasionally took notes with a black felt pen.

Two potential jurors were rejected yesterday - one woman who said that after Muhammad was arrested she felt that "this was the man who had committed the crimes" and a man who had trouble understanding questions regarding whether he would be able to impose the death penalty. The names of the potential jurors were not made public.

"All we're trying to do is get the best jury we can," defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro said to juror No. 67 in court yesterday. "These are key questions, and we're asking you to look into your heart."

That juror was asked if she would ever be able to impose the death penalty on someone. She said she felt nervous and jittery, and then answered in a soft, fluttering voice, "I'd rather not have it on my conscience. When it's over, I don't know how I'd feel."

The prosecution sought to dismiss her based on that reluctance. Lead prosecutor Paul B. Ebert said it was clear that her views would impair her ability to vote for death if Muhammad is convicted of either of the two capital murder charges against him.

But defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro said, "She is allowed to have these feelings. And Mr. Muhammad is allowed to have jurors on the panel who are very conscious of the weight on their shoulders because it is such a big decision."

Ultimately, Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. ruled that the woman could stay because her reservations concerned the responsibility of deciding life and death rather than a staunch opposition to execution. The judge also allowed a woman who said she was morally opposed to the death penalty to remain on the jury.

Of the 13 people who were qualified as potential jurors yesterday, 10 were women and three were men. Ten were white and three were black.

The questions yesterday focused on three main areas of concern for the judge and lawyers - how much publicity about the case a juror has heard, the juror's views on the death penalty and whether the juror or a family member felt personally terrorized by the shootings in October last year.

Most of the potential jurors said they followed the shootings only casually last year, that they would have no problem imposing the death penalty if they felt it was warranted, and that they weren't too afraid last fall. Several said they assumed Muhammad was guilty after he was arrested.

"It seemed as though he was guilty of the crimes, back when this was on TV all the time a year ago," said juror No. 67. But she added that she has an open mind now and would be able to set aside the publicity from last fall.

Muhammad is on trial in the killing of Dean H. Meyers, 53, an engineer who was shot while pumping gas in Manassas, Va., on Oct. 9, 2002. The trial was moved from Manassas to Virginia Beach in an attempt to find a jury unaffected by the 13 sniper shootings in the Washington region last fall.