It's `Groundhog Day' at the sniper trial

October 17, 2003|By Michael Olesker

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - John Allen Muhammad, hemmed in by uniformed deputy sheriffs, shuffles down a long concrete corridor each morning in handcuffs and leg irons and slips into a criminal courtroom where he shows almost nothing to a roomful of observers scrutinizing his every twitch.

He peers out of vacant jailbird eyes. Sometimes he shifts uncomfortably in his chair but mostly sits motionless, leaning his elbows on the defense table, hands folded in front of him. Yesterday, he wore an olive-gray sports coat small enough that it stretched across the middle of his back and bunched at the shoulders. Sometimes he looked as though all of this business about last autumn's mass sniper killings and the possibility of the death penalty refers to some other lifetime, and some other guy.

As a third, torturous day of jury selection ended yesterday, you wanted something more. You wanted some clear acknowledgment of the hideous charges here, of the innocent people gunned down and the evidence prosecutors say ties Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, then 17, to a three-week reign of terror across parts of the Maryland-D.C.-Virginia area.

But Muhammad shows nothing. No visible anger, no aura of menace - conversely, only the brief formal declaration that he is not guilty. For a day, there were rumors that he'd been roughed up in jail. There's something on his face that looks like a bruise. Not so, said one of his attorneys, Peter Greenspun.

"A rash," he said. "It's nothing. Nada."

And anyway, said Virginia Beach Sheriff Paul J. Lanteigne, nobody gets near enough to Muhammad to touch him.

"We have somebody check on him every 15 minutes," Lanteigne said yesterday, standing in an isolated courthouse corridor during a break in jury selection. "But he's away from all other inmates, and he doesn't talk much with any of us. He's been very passive, and the only conversation's about procedural stuff, like wanting the lights in his cell dimmed."

In his cell, says sheriff's office spokeswoman Paula Miller, Muhammad sleeps a lot, prays, looks over his legal papers. In court, he sits almost immovably as the questioning of prospective jurors drones on.

The legal procedures begin to resemble Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray movie where every day exactly replicates the previous one. Only here, the repetition happens two, three, four times each hour as prospective jurors are asked variations of the same numbing set of questions.

How do they feel about the death penalty? Did they feel personally threatened by the series of sniper killings last year? Has all the pretrial publicity swayed them? Have they already formed an opinion about the guilt or innocence of Muhammad and Malvo?

One prospective juror was asked, "Have you heard much talk about this case at work?" The woman is a second-grade teacher.

"There hasn't been talk in the classroom?" she was asked.

"Not that I'm aware of."

"It's not the sort of thing you talk about in the second grade?"

"No," she assured everyone, smiling gently. The process is terrifically labored. One woman is scratched as a potential juror because she acknowledges feeling "a little scared" during the troubles last year, though she lives nowhere near the shootings. Another is dismissed because she recalled hiding behind pumps when she bought gasoline. A third, because she would need "absolute certainty" of guilt, and not just proof "beyond a reasonable doubt."

These prospective jurors are not unsophisticated. Many seem eager to serve on such a high-profile case, but know they can be disqualified if they show preconceptions of guilt, or strong feelings about the death penalty. They parse their answers carefully. When one woman bluntly admitted she favored the death penalty, Muhammad snapped upright in his chair and whipped his head back and forth, as though suddenly reminded of the implications of these proceedings: 10 people dead, three more wounded. Someone will have to pay. Prospective jurors are asked, might their feelings about the death penalty be softened if they knew of troubles in Muhammad's life?

He was, by various accounts, a man at the end of his emotional rope: marriage ended, business gone, children alienated, wallowing in self-pity. If they were to find him guilty, prospective jurors are asked, might such a history cause them to bypass death for life without parole?

They wrestle uncomfortably with such questions, and the process labors on through dozens of people. Maybe lawyers can pick a jury by Monday, but maybe not. The hours seem endless. Ahead are an estimated six to eight weeks of testimony. The only one who seems not to mind the slow pace is Muhammad. Sitting beneath the shadow of death, he is in no particular rush.

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