Sniper suspect John Muhammad pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to a number of charges put before him.

Americans living in Washington DC were terrorised for more than three weeks last year when the random shootings began.

Muhammad said "not guilty" four times in a clear voice, as four individual charges against him were read in a Virginia Beach courtroom, some 200 miles (320 km) from where the shooting occurred on 9 October 2002.

In a white long-sleeved shirt, dark tie and trousers, Muhammad presented a far different appearance than he has previously, when he has worn the familiar orange prison jumpsuit.

Sniper suspect John Allen
Muhammad in court last August

Asked by Judge LeRoy Millette whether he understood the charges against him - two capital murder counts, a charge of conspiracy and a weapons charge - he replied: "Yes, I understand what I'm charged with."

Travelling companion

Muhammad, 42, faces two capital murder charges in connection with the killing of a 53-year-old Maryland man who was shot dead as he refueled his car in Manassas, in Washington's Virginia suburbs.

Along with his young travelling companion, Lee Malvo, now 18, Muhammad is linked to 10 fatal shootings in and around the US capital in October 2002.

Three other people were wounded in the attacks, which created a pervasive climate of fear and spawned intense publicity.

Before jury selection, which is expected to take several days, one of Muhammad's lawyers thanked the community for taking on the responsibilities of what is expected to be an expensive and long-running trial.

In addition to the more customary murder charge, Muhammad is the first to be tried for murder under Virginia's anti-terrorism law, enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Both charges carry a possible death sentence. In order to be seated, potential jurors must agree that they could impose the death penalty if Muhammad is found guilty.

Impartial

The only other possible sentence is life in prison without parole.

Prosecutors and defence attorneys will pick 12 jurors and three alternates for the trial, which was moved from Manassas, in Washington's western suburbs, to Virginia Beach, in an attempt to seat an unbiased jury.

Muhammad (R) shares laugh with
his attorney, Jonathan Shapiro

Potential jurors were brought into the courtroom 40 at a time, and filled out questionnaires before being questioned by attorneys.

Of the first 80 candidates, Millette excused 30, mostly for work or health reasons, but two women were let go because they said they had heard so much about the case they could not be impartial.

Court recessed for the day after attorneys questioned prospective jurors in groups, asking them if they could stomach graphic forensic evidence in this case

They were also quizzed as to whether Muhammad's African-American heritage or his Muslim faith would make a difference in considering the charges against him.

Executions

Virginia Beach juries, culled from among the many military and retired military residents of the area, have a reputation for toughness and a willingness to impose the death penalty.

Virginia is second only to Texas in its number of executions.

Malvo, who was 17 when the crimes were committed, is being tried as an adult for a separate fatal shooting, which occurred just west of Washington.

He also would face a possible death sentence if convicted. His attorneys have said they plan an insanity defense, contending Muhammad brainwashed Malvo.

Malvo's trial was moved to Chesapeake, a city not far from Virginia Beach, and is scheduled to begin on 10 of November. Malvo also faces a possible death sentence.