ROCKVILLE—The difficulty of finding jurors in Montgomery County who had not decided that convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad was responsible for the county's six sniper killings in 2002 became immediately apparent yesterday as the presiding judge questioned the first batch of 300 potential jurors.
During initial questioning - which was disrupted by a profanity-laced outburst from a victim's relative - nearly all of the first 25 potential jurors said they believed that Muhammad committed six murders in the county, and many were aware that he had been convicted of a sniper killing in Virginia.
"It happened right around my old job, right around my house," said Quinn McCreary, 24, who lived across from one of the shooting scenes in Silver Spring. "It was right in my face."
McCreary was excused by Montgomery County Circuit Judge James L. Ryan.
The trial's first day illustrated the difficulty posed by a defendant who seeks to represent himself, particularly when the suspect has no legal training and is charged in a high-profile crime.
Muhammad, 45, had bitterly criticized his court-appointed attorneys in previous cases and has chosen to represent himself in this case, something he did briefly in his Virginia trial.
Yesterday, he sat at the defense table, staring at each possible juror who was called for individual questioning. The potential jurors had filled out a form of 32 questions, asking their opinion of the case, whether they thought they could still be fair and whether they had experience with guns such as the Bushmaster rifle used in the killings.
As more people said they believed he was guilty, Muhammad grew more agitated. He objected to most, and at midafternoon, he told the judge he would object to all potential jurors who said they couldn't be fair to him.
"These people are saying their minds are already made up," he complained.
Outside the courthouse, A. Jai Bonner, one of Muhammad's appointed standby lawyers, said, "This court has no business trying this case. It should have been moved a long time ago."
On Friday, Ryan rebuffed Muhammad's request to move the trial, saying that three days before the trial's start was too late to ask. The public defenders Muhammad fired had not sought a new location for the trial.
Muhammad faces six counts of murder in Montgomery County in the October 2002 shooting rampage that claimed 10 lives in the Washington, D.C., area, injured three others and placed millions of people in fear that they could be next in the sniper's sights.
Already on Virginia's death row for a sniper killing, Muhammad could be sentenced to multiple life terms without parole if convicted in Maryland. Lee Boyd Malvo, 21, convicted as Muhammad's accomplice in two Virginia sniper shootings, is serving life prison terms there.
Jury selection began about 10 a.m. with more than 300 people called in. The final panel will consist of 12 jurors and four alternates.
Within the first hour, as more pretrial motions were being argued, a cousin of one of Muhammad's six alleged victims in Montgomery County was ejected from the courtroom after screaming obscenities at the suspect.
"I hope you rot in hell," hollered Christopher Roberts, wearing a bright red T-shirt that said, "Why?" Roberts said he was as a cousin of bus driver Conrad E. Johnson, the final sniper victim.
Deputies escorted the man from the courthouse and told him not to return. Outside the courthouse, he said what he wanted to tell Muhammad: "Don't be antagonizing these families."
He said he thought Muhammad should admit to the crimes.