- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

A Prince William County judge yesterday ordered the trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad moved 200 miles to Virginia Beach, saying the change of venue was necessary to ensure a fair and impartial trial.

The order, issued by Prince William County Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. and dated Tuesday, came less than two weeks after a Fairfax County judge ordered the trial of Mr. Muhammad’s fellow sniper suspect, Lee Boyd Malvo, moved to Chesapeake, adjacent to Virginia Beach.

After initially saying Mr. Muhammad could receive a fair trial in Prince William County, Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert withdrew his objection to a change of venue during a pretrial hearing Friday.

“Once Fairfax moved the trial, I couldn’t see how we could remain in Prince William County and be consistent,” he said yesterday.

Mr. Ebert said prosecutors will have to find lodging, office space for staff and storage space for evidence, but anticipates no delay in the start of the trial, set to begin Oct. 14 and expected to last four to six weeks.

Paula Miller, a spokeswoman for Virginia Beach Sheriff Paul J. Lanteigne, said Tuesday that officials would be prepared for the start.

“By my calculation, we have 62 working days to be ready for trial. Will we be? Absolutely,” she said. Miss Miller also said Judge Millette had visited Virginia Beach and its court complex and was “impressed with our cooperative nature and the security features.”

Virginia Beach and Chesapeake each have new courthouse complexes with state-of-the-art security, including tunnels that connect the jails to the courtrooms. The courthouses also have closed-circuit TV hookups for overflow crowds.

Of the roughly 1,200 prisoners in the Virginia Beach jail, eight are facing capital charges.

The 248-square-mile city of Virginia Beach is smaller than the 338-square-mile Prince William County. However, the city’s population of 426,931 exceeds that of Prince William County, which has slightly fewer than 300,000 residents.

The population of Virginia Beach is 19 percent black and 71.4 percent white, compared with 18.8 percent black and 68.9 percent white in Prince William County, according to 2000 census figures. The median income is $48,705 in Virginia Beach and $65,960 in Prince William County.

“I don’t think the demographics are that different,” Mr. Ebert said. “It’s a foreign venue but it’s a good venue.”

Virginia Beach Mayor Mayera Oberndorf said the city would be prepared to host the trial. Asked if the high-profile trial could create economic benefits for the seaside resort, she said, “I do not in any way look at this change of venue as a tool of tourism. I see it as a situation that has caused enormous suffering.”

Mr. Ebert said he did not know the cost of moving the trial, but expected it would be “a lot of money.”

Judge Millette’s order cited the prosecution’s willingness to have the case moved as part of his reason for granting the defense request. He also said “good cause has been clearly shown that such change of venue is necessary to ensure a fair and impartial trial.”

Mr. Malvo’s trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 10, and the two cases are expected to overlap. Mr. Ebert said the proximity of the trials will make it easier to transport evidence and witnesses in both cases.

Mr. Muhammad’s attorneys, Peter Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro, issued a statement yesterday saying they were “pleased Judge Millette has agreed that a trial in Prince William County would be impossible.”

However, they repeated their argument, rejected by Judge Millette, that the capital charge against Mr. Muhammad stemming from Virginia’s antiterrorism statute should be dropped.

“We continue to believe that it is legally impermissible to impanel a jury when the Commonwealth asserts that the entire citizenry was intended to be victims,” the statement said.

Mr. Ebert argued the statute requires proof only of the defendant’s intent to intimidate the population at large, not proof that the entire population was victimized.

Former federal prosecutor Robert Cleary, who successfully prosecuted Unabomber Theodore J. Kaczynski, said fair and impartial juries could have been seated in Northern Virginia, but that relocating the sniper cases was a good idea.

“There’s always a feeling within the community when there is a violent crime committed that [residents] want to have vindication, and they want to have vindication in their own back yard,” Mr. Cleary said. “The difference is that given this type of crime it really terrorized the whole community.”

He said moving the trial also would eliminate grounds for an appeal if the sniper suspects are convicted.

Mr. Muhammad, 42, and Mr. Malvo, 18, were linked to 13 shootings in Maryland, Virginia and the District last October.

Mr. Muhammad faces capital murder charges in Prince William County for the Oct. 9 shooting death of Dean Harold Meyers outside a Manassas gas station.

Mr. Malvo faces capital murder charges in Fairfax County for the Oct. 14 killing of FBI analyst Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot in Falls Church.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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