Wed, Oct 15, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Prosecutors try to ferret out impatrial jurors in sniper trial


A year after a series of deadly sniper shootings terrified residents of the Washington area, defense lawyers say they face trying circumstances in the death-penalty trial of 42-year-old suspect John Allen Muhammad.

The case, which opened yesterday and is expected to last up to six weeks, was moved some 320km out of metropolitan Washington to this southeastern Virginia city after defense lawyers argued that every northern Virginia resident could be considered a victim because the shootings made them afraid.

Even so, some legal experts have said it will be difficult to select impartial jurors from a community where people may still have felt vulnerable as the attacks mounted. Intense media coverage of the case will also make it difficult to find unbiased jurors. About 120 potential jurors will be brought to the courtroom in groups of 40 to fill out a lengthy questionnaire.

Circuit Judge LeRoy Millette Jr. ordered that jurors be questioned individually about such sensitive issues as their views on the death penalty, their knowledge of the case and whether they or their family felt terrorized durng the spree. Individual questioning is intended to ensure that potential jurors are not influenced by each other's answers.

Muhammad's defense lawyers, Peter Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro, have also expressed serious concerns that law-enforcement leaks have already hurt their client's chances of getting a fair trial. Police violated a court order prohibiting them from discussing evidence with reporters "because they feel like nobody is going to complain that Mr. Muhammad's rights were violated," Greenspun said.

Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, are charged with 13 shootings, including 10 deaths, over three weeks last October that left many Washington area residents ducking for cover. Malvo's lawyers intend to pursue an insanity defense, saying Muhammad had so indoctrinated his young companion that Malvo could no longer tell right from wrong.

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