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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 October, 2003, 22:36 GMT 23:36 UK
Vexed Virginia hosts sniper trial
By Ian Pannell
BBC correspondent in Virginia Beach

"My opinion? He should fry!" So said Raymond A Loving. Large and lugubrious, he called emergency 911 after one of the sniper attacks in Virginia.

Alleged sniper John Muhammad at the start of his trial
Mr Muhammad arouses passions, even far from his alleged hunting ground
Leaning over the counter of the petrol station where he works, his judgement was devoid of pause or doubt.

This view does not jar in this notoriously conservative state where a jury is now being selected for the trial of John Allen Muhammad, accused of masterminding the attacks which terrorised the Washington area a year ago.

Virginia was chosen by the US Attorney General John Ashcroft as the location for the first sniper trial precisely for this reason.

The state's death penalty has the dubious honour of being second only to Texas. In terms of upholding convictions on appeal, Virginia holds the national record.

When defence lawyers surveyed potential jurors around Washington earlier this year, all but one said Mr Muhammad was guilty and should be executed.

The sole exception was someone who did not know whether or not the defendant was guilty but said he should be executed anyway.

Far-reaching effects

So the trial was moved to the southern tip of Virginia, not that people are any more liberal here. It is just that they may be less tainted by the sniper case.

Hundreds of thousands of residents in Washington DC, northern Virginia and Maryland were forced to put normal life on hold last year.

The residents at Virginia Beach may not have been physically affected by the sniper attacks that left 10 dead in the capital region. That does not mean they have not been psychologically affected. It does not mean they have not formed opinions about the case and the accused.

Jack Payden-Travers protests outside the Virginia Beach courthouse
An anti-death penalty campaigner was a lone figure at the court
Last October's string of shootings made headline news as far away as Britain - imagine the saturation media coverage in America.

Already lawyers are having to reject people whose views have been tainted by the news. With more than 1,000 potential jurors, this process could go on for some time.

Back at the counter of his petrol station, Raymond A Loving wants the trial over and done with.

His version of justice is the execution of John Allen Muhammad and his alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo.

In this state of the gun and the "good old boy", he may well end up getting his wish.

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