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Sniper case jury selection continues

From Mike Ahlers

Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad listens to court proceedings Wednesday.
Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad listens to court proceedings Wednesday.

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia (CNN) -- Opening statements are likely to begin Monday in the trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, the defense and prosecution said Wednesday, following a day of jury selection in which 13 potential panelists were chosen.

The judge needs to approve a pool of 27 people from which prosecutors and defense lawyers can each strike six. That leaves 15 jurors -- including three alternates -- to hear the case against Muhammad. Interviews continue Thursday.

Among those selected was a retired Navy pilot, the supervisor at a debt collection company, and a grandmother of three.

Also selected was one woman who said she opposed the death penalty but would follow "the law of the land." Ten of the jurors are women and three are men. Ten are white; three are African American.

All of the potential jurors questioned Wednesday acknowledged some knowledge of the case.

Six said they felt some fear for themselves or family members during the three weeks last October when 13 shootings killed 10 people in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

The grandmother said she was concerned about her daughter in Mechanicsville in suburban Richmond -- not far from one of the shootings.

"It was getting close," she said.

One mother said her 12-year-old son -- after learning she was a potential juror -- took away her clock radio and newspaper and barred her from watching TV to limit the chance she would be tainted by publicity.

All the panelists said they could be fair and impartial jurors. Most of the panelists said they did not have an opinion on the death penalty but could impose it if the circumstances so warranted.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers took about 20 minutes to question each prospective juror in the morning session, when eight jurors were chosen. The trial is expected to last as long as six weeks.

The 123-member pool in court Tuesday was whittled down to 68 as 51 prospective jurors were excused for work or health reasons.

A handful of prospects were sent home when they said they could not put aside preconceived opinions or biases.

Two prospective jurors were rejected after Circuit Judge LeRoy Millette Jr. agreed that one man appeared confused and one woman had formed an opinion that Muhammad was guilty.

If 27 possible jurors cannot be found in this group, more people would be called in, officials said.

Muhammad, 42, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to four charges connected with the October 9, 2002, fatal shooting of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, at a gas station in Manassas.

Muhammad 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 and with illegal use of a firearm.

The judge moved the trial from Manassas 200 miles south to Virginia Beach to find jurors not affected by the sniper attacks or tainted by pretrial publicity.

When jury selection began Tuesday, Millette told potential jurors to "look into your hearts and your minds" and determine the case only on evidence presented in the courtroom and not on the basis of information in the media.

He also told them that if Muhammad is convicted of a capital offense, they will have only two sentencing options, death or life without parole.

Muhammad's trial is likely to overlap the trial of fellow suspected sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, scheduled to start next month in neighboring Chesapeake.

Malvo, 18, is charged in the slaying of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, 47, outside a Home Depot store in Falls Church on October 14, 2002. Last week Malvo's attorneys indicated they would use an insanity defense at his trial.

Malvo is charged with three counts: premeditated murder in the commission of an act of terrorism, premeditated murder of more than one person within a three-year period and use of a firearm during a murder.

CNN's Laura Bernardini contributed to this report.

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