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Sniper Trial Jury Selection Begins

Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad arrives in courtroom 10 for the start of his trial at the Virginia Beach Circuit Court in Virginia Beach, Va., Tuesday Oct. 14, 2003. Muhammad faces two counts of capitol murder for the shootin fo Dean Harold Meyers in Manassas, Va in October of 2002.
AP
A year after a series of deadly sniper shootings terrified Washington-area residents, defense lawyers say they face trying circumstances in the death-penalty trial of 42-year-old suspect John Allen Muhammad.

The case, which opened Tuesday and is expected to last up to six weeks, was moved some 200 miles out of metropolitan Washington to Virginia Beach 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.

Prospective jurors will be brought to Circuit Courtroom Number Ten in groups of 40, reports CBS News Correspondent Barry Bagnato. Lawyers will question them, especially particularly about how they have been affected by all the publicity surrounding this sensational crime spree.

Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. ordered that jurors be questioned individually about to ensure that potential jurors are not influenced by each other's answers.

"I think they can get as fair a trial here as they can get anywhere and I gather the evidence is pretty strong," said Old Dominion University jury expert Donald Smith.

Muhammad's defense lawyers, Peter Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro, have also expressed serious concerns that law-enforcement leaks already have hurt their client's chances of getting a fair trial.

"Muhammad's lawyers have a huge mountain to climb," said CBSNews.com Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen. Their client is immensely unpopular in Virginia and elsewhere; there appears to be decent evidence against him and it's hard to figure the defense is going to get much traction by arguing that Muhammad was influenced by Lee Malvo, the much younger of the two sniper suspects."

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 a three weeks last October that left many Washington area residents ducking for cover as they filled gas tanks and ran errands.

Malvo's attorney Monday said his client's insanity motion is not expected to delay the start of the trial, which is now scheduled to begin Nov. 10, reports Cohen. There is also a hearing this Thursday in Fairfax, Va., on whether defense can use teleconferencing to get trial testimony of certain witnesses, including Malvo's mother.

If prosecutors object, as expected, and the judge rules in their favor, it will be a big issue for the defense on appeal, says Cohen. And think of the headline: "Prosecutors Try To Block Malvo Mom From Trial."

Muhammad faces two counts of capital murder for the shooting of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, of Gaithersburg, Md., while he pumped gas at a Sunoco station near Manassas on Oct 9, 2002.

The trial will make legal history no matter the verdict because it will be the first test of Virginia's new anti-terrorism law, passed by the state legislature after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart.

The state will have to show not only that Muhammad participated in a murder, but that the intent was to influence the government or to intimidate the civilian population.

The other capital charge alleges multiple murders over three years. Prosecutors will have to prove Muhammad's involvement in the Meyers killing and at least one other fatal shooting to obtain a conviction under that count.

Defense lawyers argue Muhammad can get the death penalty on this count only if he was the triggerman, while prosecutors say recent case law shows they need only prove Muhammad was the "instigator and moving spirit" of the murders.

Since the death penalty was reinstated, Virginia has been the nation's second leading executioner, although still far behind Texas.

"This is not a friendly state for those who are facing the death penalty," Old Dominion's Smith told Bagnato.

"This case is all about the death penalty," says Cohen: whether Virginia prosecutors can get a capital conviction against Muhammad based on the evidence and his background and whether the defense can spare Muhammad's life if he is convicted.

"Muhammad may have to try to point a finger at Lee Malvo, just as the younger of two sniper suspects may end up pointing a finger at Muhammad," the CBSNews.com Legal Analyst adds. "The problem for Muhammad is that jurors aren't likely to believe that the older of the two men would have been influenced."