RICHMOND — Lawyers for sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo could seek to move the pair’s capital-murder trials from Northern Virginia.
But other attorneys who have handled high-publicity cases in Virginia agree no clear pattern exists as to when a trial is moved.
“It just depends on what judge you get,” said Judith M. Barger, who helped defend Mir Aimal Kasi, executed last month for the 1993 killings of two CIA employees in Fairfax County.
Michael Arif, who is representing 17-year-old Malvo, has said he will ask a judge to disallow the teenager’s alleged confession to shooting FBI analyst Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot store in Fairfax County on Oct. 14. Muhammad, 41, is being tried in connection with the Oct. 9 killing of Dean H. Meyers at a gas station in Prince William County near Manassas.
Efforts to reach Arif and Muhammad’s attorneys last week were unsuccessful. But Barger said a request to move Malvo’s trial would likely refer to last month’s publication of the alleged confession.
“If those statements are suppressed, then the whole jury pool has already heard about it,” said Barger, now a law professor at Appalachian School of Law. Potential jurors would need to be asked whether they had heard or read about the alleged confession, she added, and “there’s no way to ask that question without the cat being out of the bag.”
Many defense attorneys and prosecutors concur that pretrial publicity alone is usually not enough to warrant a change of venue.
In the case of the sniper suspects, Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert has conceded much of the community felt threatened from the apparently random shootings as people were killed and wounded as they went about everyday tasks such as pumping gas, shopping and cutting grass.
“There’s probably no one here that didn’t feel some effect from the acts of terrorism,” Ebert said after Muhammad’s initial court appearance in Prince William in early November.
Ebert said he believes a judge will ultimately weigh whether potential jurors can set aside their feelings and give a suspect a fair hearing. “It’s a concern in every case,” he said. “In this case, it may be a little more of a concern.”
Often, judges deny defense motions to move trials, even when the requests do not rely solely on news publicity.
In the Kasi case, defense lawyers unsuccessfully argued that intense courthouse security and the act of sequestering jurors biased the jury.
Muhammad and Malvo are charged in 13 shootings — 10 of them fatal — in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, and are charged or suspected in at least seven other shootings across the country.
Lawyers agree a case involving a large number of potential jurors, witnesses and media observers is probably best handled in a large courthouse.
The courthouses in Prince William and Fairfax have each housed large-scale trials, including the trial of penis-slasher Lorena Bobbitt in Prince William and the Kasi case in Fairfax.
“It can absolutely be overwhelming,” said Prince William Sheriff Lee Stoffregen, a deputy during the Bobbitt case. “I think that when the federal government turned that one [the Muhammad case] over to us, they took that into consideration.”
Stoffregen said his department has already received security recommendations from the U.S. Marshals Service. He also cited as pluses the courthouse’s large parking area, a 150-seat courtroom and an underground tunnel connecting the jail to the courthouse.
“The prisoner is not exposed,” Stoffregen said. “We have to worry about his security.”
Some in legal circles have raised the possibility of moving the sniper suspects’ trials to Southwest Virginia or Hampton Roads, regions that were unaffected by the shootings. Also, courthouses in Roanoke and any number of Hampton Roads localities are large enough to handle such a high-publicity case.
Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney William Petty tried a murder case that defense lawyers got moved to Alexandria because of pretrial publicity. Petty said the Ku Klux Klan had also considered demonstrating in Lynchburg over the 1988 killing of a white girl by a black teenager.
Petty had urged a judge to bring an outside jury to Lynchburg rather than move the trial of Gregory Joyner, 17, who was accused of killing Sarah Jamison, 15, on prom night.
The judge initially sided with a defense motion to move the trial, then agreed to Petty’s request to import a jury rather than transporting some 50 witnesses, several of them teenagers who would require chaperones, to another location. Finally, the judge reversed himself again and sent the case to Alexandria.
He said he does not believe moving the case altered the outcome. Petty had sought a capital-murder conviction against Joyner for the rape and murder of Jamison. The Alexandria jury found Joyner guilty of attempted rape and first-degree murder and recommended life imprisonment.
Still, Petty, who agreed to a change of venue in a white-collar-crime case, believes cases should generally not be moved unless it is clear that finding an impartial jury will be difficult.
“It is a logistical nightmare sometimes,” he said of changing venues.
Kiran Krishnamurthy is a staff writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.