Views of jury pool trouble sniper

Sniper shootings coverage
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.

They pointed to the heavy media coverage of the shootings, their children being forced to stay inside at school and their personal fears at the time. One referred to the images he saw of Muhammad in prison garb from the first trial 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.

"You see what I was telling you - that is why we have so much security," Ryan told Muhammad as Roberts was removed. "It's not just for everybody else. It's for you, too."

Replied Muhammad: 'That's America, your honor - freedom of speech."

Emotions ran high among some potential jurors.

One sniper shooting "was at a gas station that I use, the Shell. That's where I went when I was in high school," one weeping young woman said. "I feel that there is nothing anybody can say that will change my mind."

Excused from consideration, she still shook. "I didn't look at him. I couldn't look at him at all," she said as she ran toward the elevator.

Said another woman during questioning, "It's a very emotional case, especially for people living in this area. I have small children in Montgomery County public schools."

Legal experts said the challenge of impaneling an impartial jury for so notorious a case is difficult, but not impossible.

Michael Greenberger, a law professor who is director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland, said: "There will ultimately be prospective jurors who were possibly intimidated at the time but are still able to put those feelings aside."

Finding jurors willing to take a fresh look at the case could take a while, Greenberger said.

Two previous sniper trials were moved from Northern Virginia to the Hampton Roads area because of pretrial publicity.

Greenberger said the question of an unbiased jury could "ultimately be a basis of appeal that he couldn't get a fair trial."

Byron Warnken, a law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said, "The practical reality is for people who lived in this area, for people who know that he was convicted in Virginia ... it will be very difficult to find people who say, 'I'm not considering any of that.'"

But just because a juror knows about the case doesn't mean he or she can't hear the trial. "What you have to be able to do is state under oath that whatever experience you had will not inform your decision," he said.

Warnken said people have to be able to say, "I can't try this person on what I heard in the media."

Ryan tried to impress that point upon the approximately 55 people questioned yesterday, and standby lawyer Russell Neverdon Sr. later expressed unhappiness with what he called Ryan's effort to "rehabilitate" the potential jurors.

Still, only about 20 passed the first cut and were told to return Thursday, the tentative date for picking jurors. More of the first 300 called for this trial will be questioned today and, if necessary, tomorrow.

Until yesterday, Muhammad was appearing in court in a green jail jumpsuit. Yesterday, he wore a dark suit; a French-cuffed, blue-and-white shirt and a pale blue tie from the closets of the two standby lawyers who are men.

A simmering defense issue promises to resurface today. As of yesterday, Ryan had allowed Muhammad to subpoena 28 in-state witnesses of the 178 on his handwritten list.

Muhammad wants to put his Virginia prosecutors and numerous other out-of-state witnesses on the stand, but Ryan turned him down again yesterday because Muhammad had not filed the appropriate paperwork with the clerk's office.

His standby lawyers said Muhammad raised solid issues yesterday. They also said he did not appear to be mentally ill, a point in dispute.

Ryan rebuffed an attempt by the Montgomery County public defender's office, which used to represent Muhammad, to submit a letter from Annapolis psychiatrist David Williamson suggesting that Muhammad was bipolar and not competent to stand trial. It was the second such diagnosis of Muhammad.

The judge said it was inappropriate for the public defender to send it.