VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - On the first day of a trial that has attracted worldwide attention, serial sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad stood in a packed courtroom yesterday and answered to charges of capital murder in the death of a Maryland man shot pumping gas a year ago.
"Not guilty," Muhammad said four times, as a clerk read indictments against him that include two counts of murder and other felony charges.
When the judge asked him whether he was ready for his trial, he replied, "I am prepared, sir, yes." Muhammad also told the judge that he understood the charges against him, and that he is satisfied with his legal representation.
Most of the opening day of what is expected to be a six-week trial was spent winnowing a field of 123 prospective jurors.
By the end of the day, 70 potential jurors remained. The rest had been dismissed because they couldn't bear the hardship of a lengthy trial or because they said they had made up their minds about Muhammad's guilt or innocence.
Prosecutors said they hoped to finish jury selection - they must seat 12 jurors and three alternates - by the end of today, meaning that opening statements would come tomorrow.
Defense attorneys declined to comment.
Muhammad is on trial in the killing of Dean H. Meyers, a civil engineer who was shot in the back of the head Oct. 9 last year at a gas station near his workplace in Manassas, Va. The Gaithersburg resident was 53.
Before questioning potential jurors yesterday, lead prosecutor Paul B. Ebert told them, "You will hear evidence in this case involving a number of killings and a number of shootings which occurred throughout this nation. You realize you must wait until all the evidence has come to you before you reach a conclusion."
Muhammad is charged in all 13 sniper shootings that terrorized the Washington region last October. His first trial was moved from Prince William County, Va., to Virginia Beach in the hopes of finding an impartial jury. The trial of his co-defendant, Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, was moved to nearby Chesapeake and is set to begin Nov. 10.
Even though Malvo has told authorities that he fired the fatal shots in several of the killings, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Muhammad under the theory that he was a direct participant in the attacks.
Ebert asked the jury panel yesterday, "Is there anyone who cannot believe that an older person, such as the defendant, could control and direct the actions of a 17-year-old?" All of the jurors said they believed that was possible.
The prosecutor also wanted to make sure that jurors understood the nature of circumstantial evidence.
While the state is expected to mount a strong case against Muhammad with potentially hundreds of pieces of evidence, their case is largely circumstantial, such as the gun found in Muhammad's car that has been linked to the killings.
To make the point that circumstantial evidence can be quite strong, Ebert told jurors, "If you go to sleep one night and the ground is bare, and you wake up the next morning and see snow, you didn't see it snow but you know circumstantially that it did snow."
Defense attorney Peter D. Greenspun, in his remarks to potential jurors, turned that around and said that circumstantial evidence must be viewed in context.
"Like," he said, "whether or not you live near a ski slope and there's a snow machine."
The potential jurors arrived at the courthouse at 8:45 a.m. in yellow school buses, and they entered the building through a secure entrance. The 70 still in the pool have been asked to return today for further questioning.
Lawyers and the judge must narrow the field to 27 people who meet the qualifications to sit on the jury. The defense and prosecution each can then strike six jurors without cause - narrowing the field further to the 15 needed for trial.
During the seven weeks it took to select a jury in the trial against Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, Robert J. Cleary, lead federal prosecutor in the case, looked for one type of juror: "People who are not that willing to forgive and forget."
Cleary, now a defense lawyer in New York, said yesterday that he expects prosecutors in the case against Muhammad would be doing the same.
"From the prosecution's perspective, they're going to be looking for people with a much more conservative bent," he said. "Government employees, retirees, law enforcement types."
Jose F. Anderson, a law professor and director of the Litigation Skills Program at the University of
Baltimore, said defense team lawyers would be seeking another type.
"All they're looking for is mercy," Anderson said. "You're looking for tangible evidence that you have jurors who are willing to listen and say, 'I'll wait to make up my mind later.'"
In their only public statement yesterday, defense lawyers thanked the citizens of Virginia Beach for their hospitality.
Greenspun said the defense team would take no questions during the course of the trial, and added, "Here we are and we're ready to go and we hope to have a fair trial with a jury from Virginia Beach."
A reporter then shouted out one question anyway: "Why aren't you taking any questions?"
Sun staff writers Kimberly A.C. Wilson and Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.
Muhammad pleads not guilty in sniper killing of Md. man
Opening of Va. trial spent on jury-selection process; Prosecutors hope for panel today
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