VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – With his life on the line, a stone-faced John Allen Muhammad (search) pleaded innocent to murder charges Tuesday as the first trial in the deadly Washington-area sniper spree got under way.
In a strong, clear voice, Muhammad, dressed in a light gray shirt and tie, entered his plea in the slaying of Dean Harold Meyers (search), 53, of Gaithersburg, Md., who was cut down by a single bullet that him in the head while he filled up at a gas station near Manassas on Oct. 9, 2002.
Muhammad, 42, could get the death penalty if convicted.
Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo (search), 18, are charged with 13 shootings, 10 of them fatal, during a three-week period in October 2002 that spread terror across the Washington metropolitan area and had many people ducking for cover as they ran errands. Malvo goes on trial separately on Nov. 10.
Muhammad answered a series of questions from the judge and was then asked if he understood the charges. He remained silent for several seconds, until defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro whispered in his ear. Muhammad responded, "Yes, I understand what I am charged with."
Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette asked if Muhammad was ready for trial, to which he replied: "I'm prepared for it, yes."
The trial then opened with jury selection. Prosecutor Paul Ebert said after the hearing he hoped have a jury picked by Wednesday.
Millette Jr. excused 53 of 124 potential jurors, mostly because work or personal reasons prevented them from sitting through a trial expected to last six weeks. Two were excluded because they said the pretrial publicity would make it impossible to for them to give an unbiased verdict.
The remaining prospective jurors will be questioned individually. A jury of 12 plus three alternates will be seated.
Muhammad stood and stared silently at the prospective jurors each time Millette introduced a group of them to him. Prosecutors and defense lawyers, in contrast, all took the opportunity to say, "Good morning."
The judge sternly warned the prospective jurors to ignore pretrial publicity about the case.
"The only evidence you are to consider is evidence presented within the four walls of this courtroom. If you cannot make that commitment to this court, you should not sit on this jury," he said.
The trial was moved about 200 miles out of metropolitan Washington to this southeastern Virginia city after the defense argued that every northern Virginia resident could be considered a victim because the shootings made them afraid.
Muhammad faces two counts of capital murder. One charge is under an anti-terrorism law passed by the Legislature after the Sept. 11 attacks; it has never before been used. Prosecutors will have to show not only that Muhammad participated in a slaying, but that the intent was to influence the government or to intimidate the civilian population.
The other capital charge accuses Muhammad of multiple murders over three years. Prosecutors will have to prove Muhammad's involvement in the Meyers killing and at least one other fatal shooting.
Defense lawyers argue Muhammad can get the death penalty on this count only if he was the triggerman, while prosecutors say they need only prove Muhammad was the "instigator and moving spirit" of the murders.
As for Malvo, he will be tried in neighboring Chesapeake in the slaying of an FBI analyst outside a Home Depot. His lawyers intend to pursue an insanity defense, saying Muhammad had so "indoctrinated" his young companion that Malvo could no longer tell right from wrong.