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Jury selection begins Tuesday in D.C.-area sniper case

From Mike M. Ahlers
CNN Washington Bureau


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(CNN) -- One year after the Washington, D.C.-area sniper killings -- and 200 miles away -- a Virginia state judge Tuesday will begin the process of selecting a dozen people who will sit in judgment of shooting suspect John Allen Muhammad.

Virginia Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. opted to move the trial from Manassas to Virginia Beach in an attempt to find jurors not affected by the sniper attacks nor tainted by the massive publicity the case received.

But few observers of the case believe potential jurors in Virginia Beach will be ignorant of the case, which received blanket media coverage a year ago and has spawned several books and a made-for-TV movie to air Friday.

"This is not going to be something where a jury sits down in a jury box with a clean slate, listens to only the admissible evidence and then makes a decision. That's not this case," said Marvin Miller, a Virginia criminal defense attorney.

To help select unbiased jurors, the judge and parties to the case have established a procedure to screen the prospective jurors -- weeding out those who cannot serve for six weeks -- the anticipated length of the trial -- questioning them in groups, and then questioning them individually about certain matters.

Prospective jurors will be asked individually about pretrial publicity, the death penalty and whether they have personally experienced terrorism.

Muhammad, 42, is charged with murder and terrorism, both of which carry possible death penalties. The murder count requires prosecutors to prove that Muhammad committed two murders in a three-year period. The terrorism count requires proof that he terrorized the community or government.

In addition, Muhammad is charged with one conspiracy count for allegedly conspiring on the shootings with Lee Boyd Malvo, and with illegal use of a firearm.

All four counts relate to the October 9, 2002, killing of Dean Harold Meyers at a Sunoco gas station in Manassas. Together with the 18-year-old Malvo, Muhammad is charged in 13 shootings that killed 10 during a three-week period in October of 2002.

Prosecution, defense teams experienced, 'evenly matched'

The Virginia Beach court has called a jury pool of 140 people to report Tuesday, and will call additional people later in the week if necessary. The judge wants a panel of 15 -- 12 jurors and three alternates.

The prosecutor in the case is Virginia Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert, a long-time veteran of the courtroom uniformly described as folksy, and who once unsuccessfully prosecuted hairdresser Lorena Bobbitt for maiming her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, in a case that also received national attention. Two deputies, James Willette and Richard Conway, are assisting Ebert.

Two respected criminal defense attorneys are representing Muhammad -- Peter Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro.

Greenspun and Shapiro have aggressively sought to defeat the charges, launching multiple challenges to Virginia's death penalty statute, seeking investigations into suspected leaks, and attempting to dismiss the case because of material contained in a book by two Washington Post reporters.

But their efforts have largely been fruitless and they suffered a major setback last week when Millette ruled that Muhammad can't use evidence of mental health problems at any sentencing because he refused to be examined by the prosecutor's psychologist.

Former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova said the prosecution and defense teams are "pretty evenly matched."

"I think the prosecutors (for both Muhammad and Malvo) are obviously tremendously experienced professionals. The defense team seems to have done a lot of big cases, death penalty cases in Virginia. They all seem to know what they're doing," he said.

Muhammad's trial is likely to overlap Malvo's trial, scheduled to begin November 10 in neighboring Chesapeake, Virginia. Malvo, 18, is charged in the slaying of Linda Franklin, 47, who was killed at a Home Depot store in Seven Corners on October 14, 2002. Last week Malvo's attorneys indicated that they would use an insanity defense at his trial.


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