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Jury selection gets emotional in trial of man accused of killing Arkansas military recruiter
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) ' Jury selection for the trial of a man charged with killing a soldier at an Arkansas recruiting center became emotional Tuesday, with one woman's voice cracking as she discussed her family's military service and a young man stewing uncomfortably when asked whether he could condemn someone to die.
Twelve jurors, plus two alternates, were selected to hear the capital murder case against Abdulhakim Muhammad. Opening statements will be Wednesday.
Muhammad, 26, confessed to killing Pvt. William Andrew Long, 23, but said his actions were justified because of U.S. military action in the Middle East.
After sitting quietly Monday, Muhammad was more animated Tuesday. When one potential juror asked deputy prosecutor John Johnson whether the penalty is equal for two people convicted of the same crime, Muhammad blurted out, "No. It's not."
The judge didn't admonish Muhammad, but instead called prosecutors and defense attorneys to the bench before telling the potential juror anyone convicted of capital murder in Arkansas is sentenced to either life in prison or death ' "regardless of who they are."
The same potential juror later told Johnson that, at times, the burden of proof should be on the defendant.
"In some circumstances, a person is guilty until he's proved innocent," he said.
Muhammad smiled and chuckled to himself, but remained silent. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright jumped in soon after, telling the man Muhammad was "not required to prove anything."
Muhammad acted up in a number of hearings before the trial started Monday and has been accused of attacking a jailer, so deputies fitted him with an electrified belt that can be used to shock him should he become disruptive. Jurors couldn't see the belt beneath his clothing. A uniformed bailiff sat behind Muhammad, holding a remote-control button similar to those that activate buzzers on game shows.
"We've had some that were potentially going to cause problems but didn't" when they were wearing the belt, bailiff Clyde Steelman said Tuesday.
A woman ultimately selected for the jury choked up as she discussed her family's military connections, but she told Wright and lawyers she could be fair to Muhammad.
"It's a crime just like any other in my eyes," she said. The woman told defense attorney Patrick Benca that her husband fought for this nation's freedoms ' including the right to a trial by jury.
A young man wearing headphones around his neck grew uncomfortable when asked whether he could sentence someone to death. The young man said he wasn't sure, then yes, then maybe, before Johnson moved on to another subject. Then the young man interrupted.
"I wouldn't have the heart to do it," he said, adding that he wasn't a good person to make such an important decision.
"It's overwhelming," he said. "The only reason I'm here is because I have to be."
Others who adamantly opposed the death penalty were dismissed quickly, but the young man was asked to stay.
"You just hang in there with us, OK?" Johnson said.
He sighed, looked as if he were about to cry and throw up all at once and then arranged his fingers in a steeple.
"It's very hard to judge somebody when I don't like to be judged myself," the young man said. He let out another sigh when Wright eventually dismissed him.
Long's father, Daris, watched part of jury selection Tuesday afternoon. On the bench behind him sat Muhammad's father, Melvin Bledsoe.
Muhammad told The Associated Press and Wright that he killed Long and wounded Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula, then 18, as they took a cigarette break outside the Army-Navy Career Center on June 1, 2009. The two had recently completed basic training and volunteered to work as recruiters. Neither had seen combat.
Defense attorneys told potential jurors there was no disputing that Muhammad shot the soldiers, but they say he he's mentally ill. Muhammad has denied that and tried unsuccessfully to fire his legal team and represent himself.
Muhammad moved to Arkansas in early 2009 as his father expanded the family's Memphis-based tour bus company. Born Carlos Bledsoe, he changed his name after he converted to Islam in college.
In 2007, he traveled to Yemen, where Islamic extremists are known to seek sanctuary. He overstayed his visa and was deported back to the U.S. He has claimed ties to al-Qaida, but it's not clear whether he actually has links to terrorist groups or just says he does.
Jeannie Nuss can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeannienuss