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Rudolph one step closer to day in federal court

Hundreds of prospective jurors cram hotel ballroom

By Henry Schuster
CNN

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit, has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on the people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those. He is the author of the newly published book, "Hunting Eric Rudolph."

Rudolph mugshot
Rudolph eluded authorities for more than five years before being captured in 2003.
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Excerpts: "Hunting Eric Rudolph" 
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Eric Robert Rudolph
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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (CNN) -- The long, strange case of the United States v. Eric Robert Rudolph took a turn Wednesday into a hotel ballroom, where hundreds of prospective jurors joined a legal dance that could last through the fall.

The Sheraton Birmingham is a far cry from the hills of western North Carolina, where authorities spent more than five years hunting down a man prosecutors now portray as a pot-growing white supremacist.

Rudolph is charged in four bombings, three of them in Atlanta, Georgia. The jury, however, will only focus on one -- the 1998 blast outside a Birmingham abortion clinic that killed an off-duty police officer and severely injured a nurse.

The fact that jury selection began in a hotel, not a court, stems in part from the suspect's high profile -- and befits a case long ripe with twists and turns. No Birmingham courtroom was big enough to hold the about 500 people needed to fill out questionnaires this week that would help determine their eligibility to participate in the trial.

Another reason for the move: Across town, another headline trial now dominates the site where Rudolph's case is scheduled to be heard -- that of Richard Scrushy, HealthSouth's former chief executive, who is facing fraud charges.

Rudolph did not make it to the hotel, even though it stands less than two blocks from the jail where he's being held. Regardless, he and his lawyers are readying for proceedings to get underway in earnest, possibly in June.

When it does, prosecutors will contend that, on the morning of January 29, 1998, Rudolph deliberately planted a bomb, disguised as a flowerpot, in front of the New Woman All Women Health Care Clinic. When Birmingham police officer Robert Sanderson (working as a security guard at the clinic) spotted the device, they will argue, Rudolph used a remote control to detonate the bomb.

Sanderson died in the blast, while nurse Emily Lyons was grievously wounded.

Rudolph's attorneys have tipped off elements of their strategy. At a hearing last week, the defense argued to exclude much of the scientific evidence that authorities claim links Rudolph to the Birmingham blast. By preventing a reconstruction of the bomb or the remote control device from being allowed in court, the defense hopes to make it harder for the prosecution to prove its case for premeditation.

Rudolph's attorneys also will try to suggest that someone else was responsible for the bombing -- an approach they've made clear in earlier motions.

Two witnesses key for prosecution

The prosecution's case against Rudolph rests largely on two men, both of whom claim to have seen the suspect shortly after the bombing.

One is a former medical school student, identified in court documents by the initials JH.

When he heard the blast, according to his statements to investigators, JH went to the window of his dormitory. He noticed others walking toward the blast site, he said, while one man walked away from the area.

JH said he went downstairs, got in his car and attempted to follow the man through streets near the clinic. At one point, he even drove ahead and parked his car, pretending to have car trouble, to get a clearer view of the man walking by.

According to JH, the man eventually walked into the woods at the base of Red Mountain, a hill that overlooks southern Birmingham. The student drove off looking for a telephone, finally stopping at a McDonalds to call 911.

While talking with police, JH told them he saw the man once again, this time walking out of the woods. JH returned to his car, followed by an attorney who had overheard the 911 call.

Rudolph Alabama courthouse
Rudolph heads into a federal courthouse in Alabama for an earlier court proceeding.

Both men drove after their target as he got into a gray Nissan pickup, and each wrote down the number on the truck's North Carolina license plate: KND 1117. The alleged witnesses eventually abandoned their effort to follow the pickup after losing it in traffic.

That break allowed law enforcement to discover the truck belonged to Eric Rudolph, the first official mention of the man that would be the subject of an intense manhunt.

Mapping out strategies

Rudolph disappeared the next day, just hours before investigators arrived at the door of his trailer. He didn't surface until more than five years later, when a rookie policeman caught him about to go Dumpster diving for food.

The defense, for its part, says it can explain why Rudolph ran. They want to put an expert on the stand to talk about the local culture up in that part of North Carolina, claiming that folks there distrust outsiders.

The prosecution and defense both say they want jurors to see the Birmingham bombing site and the route that the witness, JH, took when he allegedly spotted Rudolph walking away from the clinic.

And the prosecution is ready to play the 911 tape from their star witness.

Rudolph's lawyers -- one of whom represented Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber," who is now serving a life term in prison after reaching a plea bargain -- will try to poke holes in his story. They say JH could not possibly have followed the same man all that time.

Lost in all of this is any mention of Atlanta, where Rudolph faces charges related to three bombings, most notoriously the blast during the 1996 Summer Olympics that killed Alice Hawthorne, then visiting Centennial Olympic Park.

The prosecution wants that to be a separate case, believing it can convict Rudolph and get the death penalty for what took place in Birmingham. The defense says that it won't bring up Atlanta either.

The Birmingham trial -- now set to start nearly two years after Rudolph's capture -- already had been delayed a year. Court officials have said they expect the trial to begin about two months after jury selection starts this week, and run for two to three months more.


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