VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Hoping to elude the serial sniper's scope, Jeffrey and Stephanie Hopper drove as far south into Virginia as they could one evening last October before stopping just north of Richmond to buy gas and find dinner.
Outside the Ponderosa Restaurant off Interstate 95, they held hands as they walked to their car. They kissed in the dark. Then, they heard an explosion as a bullet screamed toward them from the cover of woods nearby.
Jeffrey Hopper felt his abdomen being ripped open, he testified in court yesterday.
"I thought it important to lie down, so I lied down in the pavement there," said Hopper, 38, adding that his wife took off his shirt and found an entrance wound the size of an eraser head. "I took the opportunity to tell her I loved her, and then we prayed together."
The testimony of Jeffrey Hopper - the final sniper victim to survive - came at the end of an emotional day in the trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad.
Prosecutors have now presented evidence in 15 of the 16 shootings across the country that they link to Muhammad, 42, and his teen-age alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo. Muhammad, who is on trial in the death Oct. 9 of last year of Dean H. Meyers , faces the death penalty if he is convicted.
The prosecution is painstakingly building a case based on circumstantial evidence and - in no small part - grief and emotion. The jury has heard about a dozen 911 tapes in the past two weeks, seen graphic photos of the victims' injuries and listened to tearful testimony from those who survived the shootings and the relatives of those who did not.
The constant stream of grief appears to be taking a toll on at least some of the 12 jurors and three alternates. As the 911 call made by Linda Franklin's husband, William, was played yesterday, one juror dabbed her eyes with tissues; others hung their heads and shut their eyes.
Franklin was in such shock that his voice rose several octaves, and three times the dispatcher called him "ma'am." Breathing heavily and sobbing loudly, Franklin was able to blurt out to the dispatcher, "My wife. She's shot in the head."
Franklin, a former Marine, was much calmer as he took the stand yesterday and explained that he and his wife of seven years had driven to the Home Depot on Oct. 14 last year to buy light bulbs, shelves and other odds and ends for their new home.
But they had trouble loading their purchases into the trunk of their small red sports car.
Franklin suggested to his wife that she try to get a six-foot-long shelf into the car through the front seat while he stood behind the car with the shopping cart. But that wasn't working.
"I said, 'Why don't we switch places?'" Franklin testified, his voice steady. "When I was trying to put the shelf in the car, I heard a loud noise - like a piece of wood smacking concrete. I felt something hit me on the side of the face. I didn't know at the time, but afterward I found out it was her blood."
A photo of Linda Franklin's bloodied body was shown on a large screen in the courtroom yesterday. It showed much of the right side of her face destroyed. A medical examiner testified that a bullet from a high-powered rifle hit Franklin in the left side of her head, passed through her skull and brain, and exited on the right side of her head.
Before the photo, and others, were displayed, prosecutor Richard A. Conway mouthed to Franklin's 24-year-old daughter, Kate, "These are bad photos, bad photos."
In her testimony, Kate Hannum said she was 5 1/2 months pregnant when her mother was killed. She got the news in a middle-of-the-night phone call from her stepfather, William Franklin. "I remember screaming and throwing myself on the bed. That's all I could do, was scream."
For the first time yesterday, prosecutors hinted that Muhammad might have fired the shot that killed Franklin, 47. Although Malvo said in a confession after the pair's arrest last Oct. 24 that he shot Franklin, a police officer offered testimony yesterday that indicated otherwise.
The officer, Marta Goodwin, said she was driving west on Interstate 66 about a half-hour after the shooting when she saw a blue Chevrolet Caprice in the next lane. She identified the car as Muhammad's in court yesterday, but she said the person she saw behind the wheel was Malvo. She said she did not see anyone else in the car.
Authorities believe some of the sniper bullets were fired from the trunk of that car, through a hole cut above the license plate. They believe the gunman would lie flat in the trunk and communicate with the driver by walkie-talkie. Prosecutors believe that Goodwin's testimony indicates Malvo, in his confession, might have been boasting about his role in the shootings.
After testimony on the Franklin slaying, prosecutors moved on yesterday to the shooting of Jeffrey Hopper in the parking lot of the Ponderosa in Ashland, Va. Hopper and his wife had been visiting family in Pennsylvania and were on their way home to Melbourne, Fla.
"We were concerned even before we went to Pennsylvania of the shootings that were happening in the D.C. area," Jeffrey Hopper testified. "I tried very hard to make sure we had enough gas to get past D.C."
The couple, married 15 years, had a "very nice dinner" and "some wonderful conversation" at the restaurant before heading out, he said.
Stephanie Hopper walked on the sidewalk and held two cookies left over from dessert. Her husband walked on the pavement, so they were at eye level and could lean in for a kiss.
Then came the explosion.
"I literally felt myself jerk, and it felt to me like what would be the shock wave of an explosion," Hopper said. "I took a step and a half or so and brought my hand up to my abdomen and turned to Stephanie and said, 'I think I've been shot.'"
His wife tried to call 911 on her cell phone, but she couldn't dial because that day Jeffrey had taught her how to use the key lock feature on the phone.
"I picked the wrong day to do that," he joked in court, a moment of levity in a day wrought with heartache.
Stephanie Hopper testified that she called out to passers-by that her husband and been shot and then, she said, "I looked back at Jeff and he said, 'I love you,' and I said I loved him, too, and he closed his eyes."
After examining her husband to find the entrance wound on his abdomen, she turned him over to see whether there was an exit wound and he was bleeding from his back. He was not. They waited for paramedics to arrive.
"He was having trouble breathing and he looked like he was going into shock," she testified. "I told him, 'It's going to be OK. You need to fight to stay conscious. You need to stay with me.' He said he would."
Jeffrey Hopper stayed conscious until he reached the Medical College of Virginia, where he would undergo five surgeries in two weeks to save his life. He told the court the most recent surgery was last month - to reconstruct his abdominal muscles - and then he left the stand, sat down next to his wife and placed his arm across her shoulder.