Anyone can walk off the street and into the courtroom; most of the time, there are hundreds of empty seats. School classes come and go, treating the trial as a field trip and Muhammad as a curiosity.

"It was less dramatic than I expected," said Adam Newman, 18, a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, after spending an hour in the courtroom. "He gets so much respect."

It was a different scene at Muhammad's first trial, in Virginia Beach, Va., in 2003. He was treated with respect by the court, but those who wanted to enter the courtroom had to have their name on a list and pass through two metal detectors. Two armed sheriff's deputies stood behind Muhammad at all times, even when he was seated at the defense table.

It wasn't clear whether they were protecting Muhammad from the spectators or vice versa. Jurors said that when they got close to him, they felt fearful. At one point in the trial, the jury was taken to a garage to see the blue Chevrolet Caprice that Muhammad had retrofitted as a sniper's lair. Muhammad stood near the jurors as they examined the car.

"I felt horribly uncomfortable," juror Elizabeth Young said after the trial. "I hadn't seen him standing up, up close, before. I realized, gosh, this is a pretty big and powerful person."

During the sniper attacks, John Harrald lived a quarter-mile from the Home Depot in Falls Church, Va., where Linda Franklin was killed. He didn't shield himself when pumping gas or alter his lifestyle, but he understands why others did.

"Two things are driving that," said Harrald, director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University. "One is the availability bias. We can imagine it because we see it. And two is the consequence is particularly dreadful."

He sees Hurricane Katrina having a similar effect. Harrald now lives in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore, and his neighbors are taking the threat of hurricanes more seriously than before. That makes sense emotionally but perhaps not rationally.

"What it means," he jokes, "is the next natural disaster will probably be an earthquake."

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com