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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 October, 2003, 16:07 GMT 17:07 UK
US sniper suspect denies charges
John Allen Muhammad
Mr Muhammad could face the death penalty if found guilty
The older of two men accused of last year's sniper killings in the Washington area has pleaded not guilty at the opening of his trial.

John Allen Muhammad, 42, denied four charges in relation to the murder of a 53-year-old man at a petrol station in Manassas, Virginia.

It was one of 10 killings that terrorised the US capital in October 2002.

Mr Muhammad faces the death penalty if found guilty.

His alleged accomplice, 18-year-old Lee Malvo, is to be tried next month on separate murder charges.

Asked by the judge whether he understood the charges against him, which include two counts of capital murder, one charge of conspiracy and a weapons charge, Mr Muhammad said: "Yes, I understand what I'm charged with."

The next stage of the trial - the selection of 12 jurors and three alternatives from a pool of 120 people - is now underway.

The judge has ordered that prospective jurors be questioned individually about such sensitive issues as their views on the death penalty and their knowledge of the case.

The selection process is expected to take several days.

Analysts say federal prosecutors chose Virginia for the first trial because it has the death penalty.

The trial was moved to Virginia Beach, 200 miles (324 kilometres) from the scene of the Manassas shooting, because it was deemed impossible to find un unbiased jury in the Washington area.

Brainwashed?

Speaking outside the courthouse on Tuesday, one of Mr Muhammad's lawyers Peter Greenspun thanked the community for taking on the responsibilities of such a high profile case.

"We look forward to getting started, everyone has done a lot of work and preparation," he said. "We're ready to go and have a good and fair trial with tremendous jurors from the city of Virginia Beach."

Lee Boyd Malvo in custody
Malvo was 17 when he was arrested

Apart from the attacks in the Washington DC area, the two are also suspected of involvement in shootings in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Arizona and Washington State.

Mr Muhammad's lawyers argue Mr Malvo did the actual shooting.

Mr Malvo's lawyers contend that their young client was brainwashed by Mr Muhammad and say they will plead insanity.

Mr Muhammad is an ex-US soldier who served in the 1991 Gulf War.

He was known as John Allen Williams before he converted to Islam in the 1980s.

Motive mystery

Mr Muhammad's lawyers tried but failed to have their client declared insane at the time of the attacks, after he refused to be examined by psychiatrists.

Over three weeks last October, the US capital was gripped by fear as people were shot in succession.

The attacks ceased after Mr Muhammad and Mr Malvo were arrested in their car in Maryland on 24 October 2002.

A search of their Chevrolet turned up a Bushmaster rifle. No clear motive, or any links among the victims, has been established.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Ian Pannell
"The prosecution will also bring to bear the cases of those other people who were shot last October"



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