Jury selection for the trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad began Tuesday in Virginia Beach Circuit Court.
“I am prepared, sir, yes,” Muhammad answered Prince William Circuit court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr., who asked if Muhammad was ready for the trial to begin.
Muhammad, 42, entered pleas of not guilty to the four charges against him. He is charged with two counts of capital murder, one count conspiracy to commit to commit murder and one count use or display of a firearm in the commission of a felony.
When asked, Muhammad told the judge, “Yes, I understand what I am charged with.”
Millette explained to potential jurors that the Commonwealth has two different theories of Dean Harold Meyers’ murder. Meyers, 53, died Oct. 9, 2002, while filling his gas tank at the Sunoco station on Va. 234 north of Manassas. Millette read the indictments of Muhammad for the two theories of the murder: One charges Muhammad with capital murder for killing Meyers and one or more other people within three years, the other charges him with killing Meyers during an act of terrorism.
Before facing the jury pool, Muhammad’s defense attorneys asked Millette to reconsider three of his earlier rulings. Millette quickly vetoed a request to dismiss the charges because the jury pool comes from individuals who could be considered victims under the terrorism indictment. He also overruled a previous objection to three of the questions prosecutors will ask potential jurors.
But Millette left open a third request, to reconsider his decision to bar all expert mental health testimony from the trial. After two last-minute hearings in Prince William last week, Millette barred testimony from any mental health experts because Muhammad refused an interview with a forensic psychiatrist hired by prosecutors. Defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro presented an affidavit from one of the defense experts Tuesday as part of his request for Millette to reconsider. Millette announced no decision by the close of court Tuesday.
In a small, spare court room in Virginia Beach, Millette swore in 123 potential jurors. Each answered a two-and-a-half page questionnaire and verbal questions from Millette.
The jury selection process will winnow a jury of 15 from the pool. All 15 will hear the trial, but three are alternates who will be removed before deliberations begin.
Potential jurors can be dismissed either by cause or through pre-emptory strikes allowed the defense attorneys and prosecutors. By cause dismissal entails one of the attorneys or the judge removing the juror because he feels that the individual could not give a fair trial to the defendant or the Commonwealth. Jury selection will continue this week until 27 potential jurors are acceptable to the court. Prosecution and defense then get to remove six potential jurors each, without explanation.
Potential jurors were escorted into the court room Tuesday in groups of 40. After answering the questionnaire, Millette asked the potential jurors what they had heard about the case before entering the court room. He also asked if serving in a six-week trial would be an undue hardship.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert asked the potential jurors if they had scruples against the death penalty, and if “anyone did not believe a person couldn’t control the direct actions of a 17-year-old,” among other questions.
Greenspun asked potential jurors if they understood Muhammad was innocent until proven guilty. He also inquired if the facts that Muhammad was black or a practicing Muslim would influence their decision.
Of the 123 potential jurors, Millette excused 49 who said they could not sit for financial, family care or health reasons. Two were excused because they felt that what they had already read or heard about the case in the media would influence their service as a juror. After the first group was questioned by defense attorneys and prosecutors, two more were excused for personal reasons.
Muhammad and his alleged partner in crime, Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, are charged with the three-week shooting spree in the Washington, D.C., area that killed 10 people during the fall of 2002. Malvo will stand trial in Chesapeake beginning Nov. 10. He is charged with the death of Linda Franklin, 47, who was shot while loading purchases into her car at a Fairfax Home Depot store.
The necessity of keeping potential jurors away from the saturated media coverage was underscored from the start. Virginia Beach officials revoked the media credentials of FM radio station 94.9 “The Coast” after its disc jockeys said they wanted to give free tea to potential jurors to help them make the right decision ? a tea called “Guil-tea.”
“Maybe you should just go give them some of the Guil-tea and job done,” The Coast morning show disc jockey Chuck Doud told station reporter Mary Kathryn at 7:08 a.m.
“I will, but it’s crazy down here. There are barricades and cops everywhere,” Kathryn said.
“I’m so proud of her,” said fellow disc jockey Jenna Kehoe.
Virginia Beach spokeswoman Diane Roche said any interaction with jurors by the media is strictly forbidden by court order. Millette told potential jurors not to read or listen to news reports.
On air, Kathryn said she had used a station bumper sticker to make herself a radio station ID, but Roche said Kathryn had an official ID without a photo, and she was the one who called the station to verify she was an employee. The station can appeal the decision, Roche said.
Tuesday was the first day Muhammad appeared in court in slacks and a shirt and tie instead of the orange jumpsuit issued by the Prince William jail. During the trial, Muhammad will be taken to the courthouse from the jail through a partially underground tunnel. As is done with all capital murder prisoners, he has his own cell and takes recreation by himself, Roche said. His 10-foot-by-12-foot cell has a cot, toilet and sink and is under constant surveillance, she said.
Prince William Sheriff E. Lee Stoffregen handed Muhammad over to Virginia Beach officials at the Manassas Regional Airport around 6:45 a.m. Saturday, with around a dozen heavily armed sheriff’s deputies protecting Muhammad, who was wearing a white bulletproof vest.
Muhammad was flown on a leased Virginia Beach city airplane to an undisclosed airport in Hampton Roads and was in his cell Saturday around 9:15 a.m. and went right to sleep, said Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Paula Miller.
Wednesday, jury selection will continue with individual questions from the attorneys for the first group of potential jurors. The jury pool will be asked their opinion of the death penalty, how they have been affected by pretrial publicity, and if they consider themselves victims of the acts of terrorism that occurred last fall.