Jury selection began on Thursday in the Moscow trial of a man accused of murdering 49 people, most of them in a public park where he reportedly hoped to kill one person for every square on a chessboard.
Alexander Pichushkin, 33, is alleged to have committed his first murder as a student in 1992 and to have stepped up his campaign in 2001, bludgeoning his victims to death with a hammer.
The "Bitsevsky maniac" as he in known, after the sprawling Moscow park where the murders were committed, Pichushkin is being tried for 49 murders, although investigators said earlier there was proof he had killed 62 people.
He has also been dubbed "the mad chess player" in the media after he told investigators he had planned to kill 64 people, one for each square on a chess board.
Investigators said that Pichushkin aimed to exceed the number of victims killed by the infamous Soviet-era serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who was convicted in 1992 of murdering 52 people.
At Thursday's session at Moscow city court the defendant appeared in defiant mood, rejecting one lawyer allocated to him on the grounds that he was "on the side of the prosecutors," the RIA Novosti news agency reported.
Investigators said that most of Pichushkin's victims were elderly alcoholic men whom he invited to join him for a drink on various pretexts, such as that he was mourning the death of his dog.
Three women were also among the victims. The killing of the third woman, a shop assistant who had worked with Pichushkin, led police to identify their suspect, as she left a note for her son with his phone number before she went on a walk with him.
On Thursday judge Andrei Zubaryov said Pichushkin had himself asked that the case be heard in open court, under the full glare of the Russian media.
Television footage taken after his arrest in June last year showed the defendant declaring in a monotone: "I never would have stopped, never. They've saved many people by catching me."
Pichushkin was arrested in an elaborate operation in which special forces officers dangled on ropes from the outside of his apartment building to prevent the suspect from trying to commit suicide, The Moscow Times daily reported.
While earlier victims were killed by simply pushing them through a manhole in the park, where they drowned due to their inebriated state, some managed to escape, only to be bludgeoned to death by the alleged killer.
Russia currently has a moratorium on the death penalty, meaning that if found guilty, Pichushkin would face life imprisonment.
Following jury selection hearings in the trial are due to begin on Friday and to continue for several weeks.
Last Mod: 13 Eylül 2007, 19:18