Death-penalty protester uses sniper trial for his message

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - As John Allen Muhammad stiffly bowed to jurors in the freshly painted Virginia Beach courtroom, Jack Payden-Travers began a lonely vigil outside that drew honks of empathy and derision.

His felt brim hat warding off the chilly drizzle, Payden-Travers, director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, propped a yellow poster board against his knees and held another in his hands and waited for passersby to take notice of his message.

The smiling driver of a passing red Pontiac did not disappoint.

"An eye for an eye," she hollered pleasantly.

Outside Muhammad's impending murder trial, which began yesterday with jury selection, a handful of demonstrators, hundreds of journalists from around the world and seemingly every resident of this waterfront city responded to the drama unfolding in a third-floor courtroom.

"It'll be the main Russian bulletin on the 9 o'clock news," said Alexander Panov, the Washington correspondent for Channel One Russia Worldwide Network, before doing a live feed to the 24-hour Russian language station. "Terror and violence, it is so common in Russia, and people, of course, are thinking there, why did this happen? Maybe they're terrorists? They want to know about the snipers."

Panov was one of 353 credentialed reporters from 76 news organizations on hand for the start of jury selection yesterday. The voices of German and British broadcasters helped lend a continental sound in the satellite truck-filled parking lots and tented public spaces adjacent to the Circuit Court of Virginia Beach.

Out front, Payden-Travers practiced patience with his hecklers.

His part-time assignment, for the next six to eight weeks, is to persuade Virginians that the state is wrong to consider executing Muhammad and his alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, if they are convicted in the string of shootings that terrorized the Washington metropolitan area last fall.

"For every person who honks and shouts 'An eye for an eye,' there are at least as many people who say thank you for being here," Payden-Travers said, brushing rain from his graying French braid. "Killing Muhammad will only escalate the cycle of violence."

Nearby, a group of six young Orthodox Jews dressed in wrinkled oxford-cloth shirts and yarmulkes paraded past the brick courthouse complex, carrying sheaths filled with myrtle leaves, willow stalks and palm branches.

They had driven over from Norfolk in a pickup truck to share Sukkot, an eight-day religious celebration for joy and unity, with Jews they met along the way. But, said the youngest, Yisroel Margolin, 14, they also hoped their mission encouraged thoughtfulness among the 123 potential jurors who filed through the courtroom of Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr.

"I hope nobody jumps to conclusions, and that they give the man the justice he deserves," Margolin's brother, Shmuel, said as he clustered beside the truck with his three brothers and a pair of friends from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Overhead, three fighter jets from nearby Naval Air Station Oceana crisscrossed the dark skies.

A city employee puttered past in a motorized golf cart, the rear seat piled high with boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

Teresa Diaz delivered 35 dozen doughnuts by mid-morning to jurors, reporters and scores of deputies charged with providing security for the trial.

She was a popular sight.