- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. — A judge granted a defense motion yesterday to move the capital murder trial of William Morva out of Montgomery County because of difficulty seating a jury to hear charges the escaped jail inmate killed a deputy sheriff and a hospital guard.

Family members of the victims cried softly as Circuit Court Judge Ray Grubbs agreed to move the trial after three days of jury selection. Many jury prospects had relationships with principals in the case, raising “the issue of credibility” of a Montgomery County jury’s deliberations, he said.

Defense attorney Tony Anderson, arguing for the move, cited the number of potential jurors who had opinions on the case.

“There is a pervasiveness of prejudice in Montgomery County against Mr. Morva,” he said.

The prosecutor, Brad Finch, had argued to keep the trial in the county but later promised to “bring justice to the case” regardless of where it is held.

Morva, 25, is accused in the August 2006 slayings of hospital security guard Derrick McFarland and county sheriff’s Cpl. Eric Sutphin. The manhunt for Morva shut down the Virginia Tech campus on the first day of classes last year.

Seventy potential jurors had been interviewed over three days, with 45 dismissed for cause. Of those, Judge Grubbs said, 22 had relationships with parties close to the case and 13 cited an inability to be impartial.

Of 24 chosen as potential jurors, Mr. Anderson said, nearly all had some knowledge of the case and four said they had an opinion about it that they would put aside.

During jury selection, several with close ties to people who work in law enforcement were dismissed, as was a co-worker of Cpl. Sutphin’s father-in-law.

Judge Grubbs said his decision to move the trial was based on a 2002 Virginia Supreme Court ruling in a Pulaski County case, which calls for a trial court to look at how difficult it is to seat a jury. In that case, the state high court ruled that the capital murder trial for Jeffrey Allen Thomas should have been moved after 47 of 104 potential jurors said they could not be impartial.

Court Clerk Allan Burke said a decision on the new location for Morva’s trial is expected in about two weeks. It will likely be moved to the west and be scheduled in early 2008, he said.

Mr. Anderson and Morva’s other lawyer, Thomas Blaylock, had earlier sought to move the trial to another jurisdiction, but Judge Grubbs said he wanted to try to seat 12 jurors. He kept the defense motion under advisement.

Mr. Anderson and Mr. Blaylock contended that the case had received such extensive publicity that it would be impossible for Morva to receive a fair trial in Montgomery County. The case got additional attention because it was mentioned in news articles about the mass shootings on the Virginia Tech campus in April.

Judge Grubbs said the publicity had not been misleading or inflammatory, “but it has been somewhat constant since August 2006.”

The judge thanked the pool of potential jurors and said they had helped him reach the decision to move the trial.

“That is a decision that it not made lightly,” Judge Grubbs said.

Morva killed Mr. McFarland, 32, after he was taken to Montgomery Regional Hospital for treatment of an injury, police have said. He is charged with overpowering a sheriff’s deputy and using his pistol to kill the security guard.

Morva is charged with killing Cpl. Sutphin, 40, the next day on a walking trail near the Virginia Tech campus. The deputy was among hundreds of police officers searching for the escaped prisoner, who was discovered in thick brush not far from where Cpl. Sutphin was slain.

When he escaped, Morva was in jail awaiting trial on attempted robbery charges. He was convicted of those charges earlier this year and sentenced to 38 years in prison.

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