The murder trial of Lee Malvo, the 18-year-old sniper suspect linked to 10 killings in the Washington area, opened on Monday with jury selection, even as prosecutors wrapped up their case against his alleged accomplice John Muhammad.
Before jury selection began, Malvo stood with his lawyers at Chesapeake Circuit Court as Judge Jane Roush read the charges against him. He wore a blue crew-neck sweater and slacks that made him look like a student.
"Not guilty," Malvo replied three times when asked for pleas on two counts of murder, one invoking Virginia's new anti-terrorism law, and a weapons violation in the death of Linda Franklin, an FBI analyst shot to death as she loaded purchases into her car at a parking lot in Falls Church, Virginia, on Oct. 14 last year.
He responded with a polite "Yes, ma'am," to a series of questions from the judge, posed to determine his knowledge of the charges against him. While attorneys questioned potential jurors, Malvo wrote or drew on papers at the defense table.
Defense attorneys in Malvo's case plan an insanity defense, arguing that their young client was brainwashed by Muhammad, his 42-year-old traveling companion.
Questions for potential jurors suggested the defense strategy. They were asked whether the facts of Malvo's early life -- he was born in Jamaica, "not in the tourist areas you may have visited," and brought to the US illegally by Muhammad -- would prejudice them. Most said no.
One defense lawyer, Craig Cooley, told prospective jurors they might hear evidence showing that "Lee [Malvo] was indoctrinated to the point where he wasn't able to tell right from wrong."
By day's end, seven people were approved for the final jury pool, which will contain 28. Of those, prosecution and defense teams may each strike six, leaving 12 jurors plus four alternates to hear Malvo's case.
Malvo's trial, like that of Muhammad, was moved some 320km southeast from the US capital's Virginia suburbs in search of an unbiased jury, something deemed impossible in the region where the 23-day sniper spree disrupted hundreds of thousands of lives last year.
As Malvo's trial began, prosecutors in Muhammad's trial in nearby Virginia Beach wrapped up their case. After a break yesterday for the Veterans' Day holiday, defense attorneys were to begin presenting their case for Muhammad today.
Although they are on trial for different murders, both defendants could face execution if convicted. Both are charged with two counts of murder for a single death, and both trials offer a test for the new Virginia anti-terrorism law, enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
If jurors in Malvo's case find him guilty, they must also decide whether he should be sentenced to death or life in prison without possibility of parole.
The prosecution in Muhammad's case works to the advantage of Malvo's defense, since prosecutors have portrayed the Gulf War veteran as indoctrinating Malvo, training him as a sniper and orchestrating the series of seemingly random attacks that gripped the area in and around the US capital.
Prosecutors have noted that much of the evidence implicates Malvo, but have said Muhammad's controlling role made him an essential member of the sniper team.