Tuesday, July 19, 2011

TOP STORY >> Muhammad murder trial jury selected

Leader staff writer

Six men and six woman—three blacks and nine whites—a mix of young and old will decide, over the next two weeks, whether Abdulhakim Muhammad will get the death penalty, life in prison or be sent to a mental institution for his alleged involvement in the killing of a military recruiter and seriously wounding another.

The jury selection took two days, and the last of two alternates was selected at 6:05 p.m. Tuesday after both sides spent more than 14 hours questioning 84 potential jurors.

Circuit Judge Herbert Wright will oversee the trial in Little Rock.

Opening arguments and at least one prosecution witness are on tap for today. The trial is expected to last up to two weeks.

Prosecutors are expected to call up to three dozen witnesses, and the defense plans to counter with about a dozen.

Muhammad, also known as Carlos Bledsoe, is charged with one count of capital murder and one count of attempted capital murder in the June 1, 2009 shooting of two Army recruiters outside the Army-Navy Career Center in Little Rock.

Private William A. Long of Conway was killed in the shooting and Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula of Jacksonville was seriously wounded. He fell to the ground and pretended he was dead.

Patrick Benca, one of Muhammad’s attorneys, conceded that his client did shoot the two soldiers, but told potential jurors that his job was to show that Muhammad suffered from mental disease or defect at the time of the incident.

Both prosecutor John Johnson and Benca addressed, explained, questioned and cajoled the potential jurors, who were brought into the courtroom Monday and Tuesday in groups of seven. As each group was dwindled down, rejected or accepted, then another group came in and the scene replayed itself again and again.

Benca told potential jurors that prosecutors had to prove Muhammad’s guilt to the high level of “beyond reasonable doubt,” and that they probably would. But the defense, when it came to the issue of mental defect or disease, had a much lower standard or bar to reach.

“All we have to show is that it more than likely was the root of the incident—50.001 percent is the standard. That’s all we have to show,” Benca said, referring to Muhammad’s state of mind.

So he asked the potential jurors that after they decided the guilt, could they wipe the slate clean to look at the issue of mental defect. He even laid out the defense for the potential jurors, saying there were basically two forms of mental defect. The first is not knowing what the person is doing.

“As an example,” he said, “say a man squeezes a baby’s head too hard and kills the baby, but at the time the man thought he was squeezing a grapefruit. That’s not the defect we will be talking about,” Benca said.

The defense attorney told potential jurors that in his client’s case, Muhammad knew what he was doing and knew it was wrong, but the force or power of the mental defect was so strong that he couldn’t prevent it.

Johnson was looking for jurors who could sign their names to Muhammad’s death sentence.He asked each potential juror and some more than once and in more than one way if they could see a set of circumstances where they could impose the death penalty.

He explained he wanted jurors who would be open to the entire spectrum of penalties, including the death penalty. Potential jurors who said they could not go for the death penalty under any circumstance were excused.

Both legal sides implored that the potential jurors not bring biases into the courtroom, but use only the evidence presented in the courtroom to determine Muhammad’s fate.

Once the final alternate was selected, all jurors were called back into the courtroom and given explicit instructions from Judge Wright not to read newspapers or news journals during the trial, not to watch any news on television and not to discuss the matter with each other or family members and friends.

“We’ve all worked hard on this trial to this point,” he told the jurors. “We don’t want to mess it up for either side now.”