Sniper trial jury is chosen

10 women, 5 men to hear case against Muhammad

Selection in Va. took four days

Panel includes veterans, nurses, foster parents

October 18, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl and Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Stephen Kiehl and Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Ten women and five men were chosen yesterday to decide the fate of serial sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, who, if convicted, could receive the death penalty in the shootings that terrorized the Washington region last fall.

The jury was sworn in yesterday afternoon after lawyers and a judge spent four days paring down a pool of more than 100 potential jurors. Those who made the final cut included four with military experience, two nurses, two engineers and two foster parents.

Jury selection was expected to be a major test for the defense, which faced the challenge of finding a group of people who did not feel threatened by last fall's attacks and who had not made up their minds regarding Muhammad's guilt or innocence.

The defense appeared to have found such people. One juror said she was so busy planning her nephew's wedding that she didn't watch television at all during the shootings. Another said she was visiting a son in Hawaii last October and didn't turn on a television or pick up a newspaper.

But she said, "I think you'd have to be in Siberia not to have a general idea" of what happened.

An amalgam of middle-class America, the jury includes a woman who survived breast cancer, one who chaperones her children's high school dances and another who volunteers for Disabled American Veterans. In the next month or so, the jury members -- whose names have not been released to the public -- will have to decide Muhammad's guilt and his possible punishment.

Legal experts say it is always difficult to predict what a jury will do, but that doesn't stop people from making predictions.

"It looks like it's a pretty good jury for the prosecutors in the guilt phase of the trial, but it might get difficult in the sentencing phase," said Robert J. Cleary, who was the lead federal prosecutor in the trial of Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski.

Cleary said the strong military presence on the jury tilts in the prosecution's favor, but he noted that the foster parents -- one of whom is a schoolteacher -- could provide enough sympathy for the defense that Muhammad, if convicted, could avoid the death penalty and be sentenced to life in prison.

The panel consists of 12 jurors and three alternates, who will be designated Monday. However, the alternates will not know they are alternates until the jury begins deliberations. The jury will not be sequestered, and it has been given strict orders to avoid media coverage of the trial, including a TV movie about the attacks that aired last night.

Lawyers are scheduled to give their opening statements Monday morning. Prosecutors said their statement will be complex and lengthy and could include photographs of up to 15 victims of a cross-country shooting rampage that has been linked to Muhammad and 18-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo.

Malvo, who is not on trial in Virginia Beach, is scheduled to appear in court here next week -- setting up the second courtroom encounter between the two suspects in less than a month. Malvo's appearance is expected to be solely for identification purposes -- prosecutors hope that a witness can point out Muhammad and Malvo as being at a crime scene.

Virginia Beach Sheriff Paul Lanteigne said yesterday that an open-ended transportation order for Malvo requires him to be in court by 9:30 a.m. Monday. The sheriff said provisions were being made in the jail and courtroom to safely accommodate Malvo and Muhammad.

Defense lawyers professed to be in the dark about the prosecution's motive for calling Malvo to court. "I don't know what they're up to," said defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro after court yesterday.

Muhammad is charged with two counts of capital murder in the killing of Dean H. Meyers, 53, who was shot in the head at a gas station in Manassas. The trial was moved to Virginia Beach to find impartial jurors.

Many of the jurors questioned during the past four days said they supported the death penalty in principle but would find it a huge responsibility to sentence someone to die by lethal injection, Virginia's preferred method of execution.

"It would have to be way, way proven," said one juror, a woman who works as a bartender and has two young children. "It's a hard one. I would have to know in my heart it was the right decision to make."

Another juror, a retired Navy captain who was an expert marksman, said, "Having spent most of my adult life in the military, I understand the taking of life." But he also expressed some reservations about law enforcement, saying his brother was killed in a shootout with police 25 years ago when he broke into a store.

All said they would take into account mitigating evidence the defense may offer, such as information about abuse and neglect Muhammad suffered as a child and business failures he endured later in life. The defense is also seeking to introduce evidence about Muhammad's mental state.

In response to a question about such evidence, one juror who is an eighth-grade teacher said, "I know how sometimes things that have happened in someone's past can affect what they do as a teen-ager and adult."

Cleary, the former federal prosecutor, said, "That's not so good for the prosecution."

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