Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert will break new ground in his lengthy career as a prosecutor today, when jury selection for the trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad enters a fourth day.
In a pretrial hearing in Manassas, Ebert told the court that he had never had a trial where jury selection take longer than three days. During a break Thursday in Virginia Beach Circuit Court, Ebert said that he had hoped Tuesday the process might only take two days.
But slow going Thursday dashed those hopes. Eleven of the 18 jurors questioned individually were rejected. At close of court Thursday, Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. told jurors he might not be able to close court Friday at 1 p.m., as he had promised earlier. He also told defense attorneys that he might not get to hear arguments in their motion to reconsider the barring of defense mental health experts from the trial.
Millette barred mental health experts hired by the defense from testifying after Muhammad twice refused to be interviewed by a forensic psychiatrist hired by prosecutors last week.
At close of court Thursday, seven more potential jurors were added to the pool, bringing the total to 20. Twenty-seven jurors are needed to advance to the final stage of selecting a jury. Defense attorneys and prosecutors will then strike six jurors from the group, yielding the jury of fifteen that will hear the trial.
One woman was dismissed from the jury pool because her husband, a Virginia Beach sheriff’s deputy, works with inmates at the jail.
“His exact words were, ‘I can’t tell you anything, other than this: Inform the court I do have contact with the defendant,’ ” the woman said.
Another woman was dismissed from the group Thursday after she said she would have to be absolutely certain of Muhammad’s guilt to sentence him to death, which goes beyond the state’s burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Five jurors were dismissed because they had concerns about sentencing someone to death, or because they said flatly they would be unable to do so.
Millette dismissed one woman who said she felt scared pumping gas during the shootings a year ago. Millette said the trial was moved to Virginia Beach to avoid that kind of emotional experience in the jury pool. Two people were released because of concerns they already believed Muhammad was guilty from media coverage of the shootings, and the arrest of Muhammad and his alleged partner in crime, Lee Boyd Malvo.
Muhammad, 42, and Malvo, 18, are charged with a three-week shooting spree in the Washington, D.C. area that killed 10 people. Muhammad is charged with the death of 53-year-old Dean Harold Meyers, who was killed while filling his gas tank at the Sunoco station on Sudley Road north of Manassas. Malvo will begin trial in Chesapeake Nov. 10 for the murder of Linda Franklin, 47, who was shot while loading purchases into her car in a Fairfax Home Depot parking lot.
All 20 were told to return today, along with 19 potential jurors from the second group that cleared the first stage of selection Tuesday. That group answered questions as a group from defense attorneys and prosecutors Thursday.
Like Thursday, questions posed today will focus on three areas: the juror’s opinion of the death penalty, if he or she had formed an opinion of Muhammad’s guilt from the publicity surrounding the trial and shootings, and if he or she had been fearful during the three weeks of shootings area a year ago.
Millette said Thursday he is committed to empanelling a jury by the end of today. Opening arguments in the case are still expected to begin Monday.
Staff writer Maria Hegstad can be reached at (757) 219-2727. Staff writer Chris Newman contributed to this article.