- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 11, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH — Jury selection begins here Tuesday for the first of two trials for the men accused of last October’s random, three-week shooting spree that left 10 dead and three wounded in the greater Washington area — more than 200 miles from this bustling, oceanside region.

Defense attorneys for sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad, 42, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, believe their clients have a better chance for acquittal with jurors selected from this area’s population than from those of Fairfax and Prince William counties, where the slayings the two suspects are accused of committing actually occurred. Judges approved moving the capital-murder trials this summer.

“People [here] are going to come to trial with more of an open mind,” said Craig S. Cooley, an attorney for Mr. Malvo, whose trial begins Nov. 10 in nearby Chesapeake.

But one police official involved in the sniper investigation said changing venues will prove to be a “tactical error” by defense attorneys.

“You go from liberal Northern Virginia to — a less liberal area. What do you think — you’re going to get a more fair trial?” the official asked.

As the first trial date nears, local businesses are bracing for an economic boom during the trials’ expected four- to eight-week stints. Hotels and restaurants are preparing to accommodate the more than 300 reporters covering the trial, as well as dozens of legal and security personnel.

Roads to the courthouse and the government complex are expected to be jammed with vehicles, making traffic and parking “a real headache,” a Virginia Beach fire department official said.

“We know all the eyes of the world will be on this city during the Muhammad trial, and, frankly, we’re a little nervous about it,” Virginia Beach Mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf said.

Meanwhile, the sniper suspects’ attorneys are banking on the hope that residents of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake do not feel as strongly about the crimes as Northern Virginians, who feared for their lives during the sniper rampage. In addition, they hope that locals here have not been very informed about the shootings and can put aside what they have learned from hundreds of news reports and articles.

The suspects could face the death penalty if they are convicted.

The selected jurors and their alternates — who will not be sequestered — will likely have to avoid receiving information from two books about the shootings that are to be released this month and a made-for-television movie on the sniper investigation that is scheduled to air Friday.

More than 630,000 people live in the Virginia Beach/Chesapeake area, and local reaction to the upcoming trials has been mixed.

Chesapeake Mayor William E. Ward has been very outspoken in opposing the move of the Malvo trial, saying it will disrupt the lives of his city’s 204,000 residents. Mrs. Oberndorf has said the Muhammad trial will challenge her city’s capabilities but also provide an opportunity for civic service.

Many residents interviewed here last week seemed willing to give the sniper suspects the benefit of the doubt, while many others apparently have made up their minds about the case.

Don Maxwell, director of economic development for Virginia Beach, said he intentionally avoided reading about the case since last month when he received a summons for jury duty this month. “If you’re summoned for jury duty, that’s a duty you should fulfill for your community,” he said. “I’d be prepared if I was selected.”

Similarly, Roy L. Seitz, 39, of Chesapeake described himself as being “very impartial.”

“Once the evidence is presented, you make your decision then,” Mr. Seitz said. “I know what I’ve seen on the news, but I haven’t seen all the facts, the police reports and what have you, so I can’t say [the suspects] should be hung.”

Ben Rainey, 37, who owns a frame shop in Virginia Beach, said he had not followed the sniper story since the two suspects were caught Oct. 24 at an interstate rest stop near Frederick, Md.

“It’s all you saw every night when you got home from work [last year]. But hopefully I could overcome any of that. I think there’s been enough time to be able to do that,” he said.

However, Louise Simons, 26, of Chesapeake said the sniper suspects “don’t deserve to live. They need to die.”

Her friend — Shane Moses, 21, a Navy cook stationed at Norfolk — echoed her sentiments.

“They should be killed, just like they killed all those people,” he said of the suspects.

Nonetheless, Mr. Moses said he believes he can serve as an impartial juror. “I have my own personal feelings, but I’m objective. I look at both sides of things,” he said.

Mr. Muhammad is charged with one count of capital murder in the Oct. 9, 2002, slaying of Dean H. Meyers, 53, at a Manassas gas station. Mr. Malvo is charged with one count of capital murder in the Oct. 14, 2002, shooting death of Linda Franklin, 47, at a Falls Church Home Depot.

They have been linked to last year’s 13 sniper shootings in the greater Washington area, as well as nine other shootings, five of which were fatal, around the country that occurred between February 2002 and September 2002.

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Virginia was given the first opportunity to try the sniper suspects because it has proven it will execute felons. The state has executed 88 inmates — more than any other state except Texas — since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated after a four-year national ban. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft sent the cases to Virginia for that reason.

“It is appropriate. It is imperative that the ultimate sanction be available for those who have committed these crimes,” Mr. Ashcroft said.

Prince William County Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. on July 16 moved Mr. Muhammad’s trial to Virginia Beach; Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Jane Maroum Roush on July 2 moved Mr. Malvo’s trial to Chesapeake. Both judges cited concerns that Northern Virginians were too traumatized by the shootings to serve as impartial jurors.

Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert, who is prosecuting Mr. Muhammad, said Virginia Beach was picked because of its demographic similarity to Prince William. Virginia Beach has about 427,000 residents, of whom 19 percent are black; Prince William has about 300,000 residents, of whom 18.8 percent are black.

By comparison, Chesapeake has 204,000 residents, of whom 29 percent are black, while Fairfax County has 1.1 million residents, of whom 8.6 percent are black.

“I think Chesapeake is a very diverse jurisdiction, and I don’t think we’ll have any trouble finding a fair jury,” said Mr. Cooley, one of the state’s most experienced and most skilled capital defense attorneys.

Mr. Malvo’s attorneys — Mr. Cooley and Michael S. Arif — said Thursday they will mount an insanity defense at his trial next month, arguing that he was a victim of “indoctrination” by the older sniper suspect.

Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., who is prosecuting the Malvo case, said there is nothing in experts’ reports indicating insanity. Even if the teen were brainwashed, that does not qualify him as insane, Mr. Horan said.

Conversely, attorneys for Mr. Muhammad — Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro — have said they plan to focus on the younger suspect’s admission to being the trigger man in several of the shootings, saying prosecutors do not have enough evidence to convict their client.

At least 70 news organizations have expressed plans to cover the trials, city officials said. Virginia Beach and Chesapeake — both recovering from Hurricane Isabel — have each set aside $800,000 for trial costs.

About half of each city’s trial funds will pay for costs associated with the large news media presence, officials said. Most of the news media attention will focus on the trials, but the two cities will gain some exposure as well.

“It will afford us visibility nationally that we have not had,” said Mr. Ward, Chesapeake’s mayor.

Mrs. Oberndorf said she wants Virginia Beach residents to be seen as “everyday folk,” but added, “We’re a little bit of country and a whole lot of cosmo.”

Officials lamented the anticipated gridlock, on roads and in city parking lots, to be created by the media coverage. Mrs. Oberndorf said she plans on leaving two hours early Tuesday morning to drive to the government complex, a trip that usually takes her 25 minutes.

Donald A. Moss, a Virginia Beach assistant fire marshal, said many city employees will have to park on remote lots and be bused in. “That’s a big inconvenience right there,” he said.

The city’s emergency response agencies have been preparing for the trial by practicing their response to bomb threats, Mr. Moss said.

Though Mr. Ward said the trial will be an “exciting time” for the region, he added, “I’m not jumping up and down. I’m not excited like I’m going to the circus.

“I still have concerns about costs, security and disruption. Those concerns have not disappeared,” he said. “I was never enthused, but now that the trial is coming we’re going to be a good host.”

Still, area businesses are expected to do well during the trials, although estimates of the economic effect vary.

“I danced in my living room [when I heard the Malvo trial was moved]. I was very excited,” said Mr. Seitz, a Chesapeake cafe owner. Mr. Seitz’s business is less than a mile from the Chesapeake courthouse, and he expects his profits to jump 20 percent during the trial.

Mr. Maxwell, Virginia Beach’s economic development director, noted that the city receives 3.5 million visitors a year. The sniper trial may draw large numbers, but it won’t overwhelm Virginia Beach, he said.

“The thing that makes it unusual is that most people come to the downtown area or to the ocean front, but this will concentrate people around the municipal center. We’re certainly not used to that out at the City Hall complex,” he said.

Nancy Perry, director of the Virginia Beach Hotel Association, said the trial’s impact will be minimal on her industry. There are 8,000 rooms along the city’s ocean front. Virginia Beach and Chesapeake will split about 1,000 room nights as a result of the two trials, according to different estimates.

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