Defense lawyers acknowledged that DNA will be hard evidence to overcome in the first trial linked to a series of stabbings that killed five people in Michigan and injured many more in summer 2010.
Victims who survived the late-night attacks in the Flint area, 60 miles north of Detroit, say Elias Abuelazam would ask for directions or help with his Chevy Blazer before stabbing them and speeding away.
Abuelazam also is suspected in attacks in Leesburg, Va.
The jury selection process began Tuesday in the death of Arnold Minor, a 49-year-old whose body was found in the middle of a busy street. Minor's DNA was discovered in dried blood in Abuelazam's SUV and inside luggage that was seized as he tried to flee to his native Israel in August 2010.
“DNA's tough, it just is,” defense attorney Brian Morley said in an interview. “He's ready. He understands the evidence. He understands what's going on.”
Surrounded by four sheriff's officers, Abuelazam entered court in a suit and tie. Genesee County Circuit Judge Judith Fullerton, on the bench for just a brief time, said lawyers meeting in private would start poring over questionnaires filled out by prospective jurors. She is hopeful that a jury could be picked by Thursday.
Abuelazam, 35, is charged with three murders and six attempted murders in the Flint area, although authorities believe he's responsible for as many as 14 stabbings. Prosecutors will be allowed to tell jurors about some of the other attacks because they were similar.
Morley and co-counsel Ed Zeineh are prepared to offer an insanity defense, claiming Abuelazam was mentally ill when Minor was killed. They've lined up an expert to talk about his mental state, but a decision about pursuing that strategy won't be publicly disclosed until trial. Prosecutors have their own experts who have examined Abuelazam and are prepared to rebut it.
“The question is: Is there legal culpability if there was an insane person at the time of the crime?” Morley said. “That's the jury's domain.”
Abuelazam had lived in Flint only for a brief time in a house owned by an uncle who lived next door. He had spent time in Virginia before landing in Michigan and getting a $10-an-hour job at a liquor store in a tough neighborhood.
Abuelazam's attorneys months ago asked the judge to move the first trial out of Genesee County, saying widespread publicity about the stabbings likely has spoiled his right to a fair-minded jury. Fullerton, however, first wants to go through a local pool of candidates.
Abuelazam is also charged with attempted murder in Toledo, Ohio.