Virginia Beach, Va. John Allen Muhammad stood before a judge Tuesday morning and pleaded not guilty to killing a man at a Prince William County gasoline station last October, for the first time publicly denying that he took part in the sniper shootings that terrorized the Washington region.
In his first court appearance in this Hampton Roads city, Muhammad answered a series of questions from Circuit Court Judge LeRoy Millette Jr. Standing tall in a pale gray shirt and dark tie, Muhammad stated his name, his date of birth and that he understood why he was in court.
Muhammad, 42, is charged with capital murder in the Oct. 9, 2002, slaying of Dean Meyers, 53, who was shot in the head with a .223 caliber rifle as he pumped gas at a Sunoco station north of Manassas. A court clerk read the four charges to Muhammad again Tuesday. He responded "not guilty" to all four.
Muhammad is charged under two separate Virginia capital murder provisions. One is a traditional route that allows for a death sentence for defendants convicted of killing more than one person in a three-year period. The other is an untested anti-terrorism law that alleges Muhammad carried out the series of 13 Washington-area shootings to intimidate the public or influence the government. He also is charged with conspiracy to commit murder and a firearms violation.
Tuesday marked the beginning of jury selection for Muhammad's trial, as prosecutors and defense attorneys started to whittle a group of 123 jurors to form a panel of 15 -- a standard 12-person jury with three alternates.
Through the end of Tuesday's proceedings, prosecutors and defense attorneys had narrowed the group to 70 -- making speedy progress through what can be an arduous task. The court aims to have a group of 27 acceptable jurors this week, so attorneys on both sides can each make six discretionary cuts.
Millette had expected to have a jury selected by the end of the week, but prosecutors said Tuesday they were hopeful they could complete the panel today or Thursday.