Muhammad trial moves to Virginia Beach

Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. made ample efforts to keep sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad’s trial in Manassas, Circuit Court Administrator Robert Marsh said Wednesday. Millette even discussed the possibility of busing jurors from Winchester to Manassas on a daily basis.

“He made the effort to keep the trial here. But once Mr. Ebert dropped his opposition, it was kind of a done deal,” said Marsh, who also acts as the Prince William judges’ spokesman.

Millette ordered Muhammad’s trial moved to Virginia Beach on Wednesday morning. Millette’s order said only that “good cause has clearly been shown that such a change of venue is necessary to ensure a fair and impartial trial.”

Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert dropped his objection to a change of venue Friday.

After discussions with Winchester judicial officials, the busing idea was dropped because a Winchester jury pool would be remarkably similar. Many in Winchester work in Washington, D.C., Fairfax and other Northern Virginia locations.

Marsh said Millette had considered several courthouses, including another Norfolk-area courthouse that volunteered its facilities and two federal courthouses in Virginia. Millette also discussed the issue with other judges at a recent conference.

Marsh said Millette’s primary concern when considering potential courthouses was security. Virginia Beach transports its prisoners from the jail to the courtroom in the same way Prince William does — via an underground tunnel and secure elevator. But the judge also had to consider areas with large enough populations to provide a jury pool, and proximity to the trial of Muhammad’s co-defendant, Lee Boyd Malvo in Chesapeake. Virginia Beach fit the bill on both counts.

Both jurisdictions cull jurors from voter registration indexes. Virginia Beach also selects jurors from Department of Motor Vehicle records. In both jurisdictions, jurors must be Virginia residents, and have been a resident of their jurisdiction for six months in order to serve.

“It’s not something you seek, but we are here to accommodate,” Virginia Beach Circuit Court Administrator Michael Davy said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It’s our job to do whatever we can to make it run efficiently.”

Muhammad, 42, and Malvo, 18, are charged with committing a series of shootings in the Washington, D.C.-metro area in the fall of 2002. Ten people died and four were injured. The pair have also been connected to shootings in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Washington state.

In Prince William, Muhammad is charged with the death of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, who was filling his gas tank at the Sunoco station on Sudley Road, north of Manassas, when he was shot. Muhammad is scheduled for trial Oct. 14. Malvo is to go on trial Nov. 10 for the fatal shooting of FBI analyst Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot store in Falls Church.

Both Davy and Marsh agreed that moving the trial would probably not create additional expense for the individual jurisdictions, since much of the cost for the trial is carried by the Commonwealth. There would be a local loss of hotel and restaurant revenues, Marsh pointed out.

All hearings prior to the trial will take place in Manassas, and Muhammad himself will remain in the Prince William/Manassas Adult Detention Center until the trial, Marsh said. Millette will be accompanied to Virginia Beach by his law clerk, his court room clerk, and his bailiff.

Even after October, Muhammad may not have seen the last of Manassas courtrooms: Should a Virginia Beach jury find him guilty, Muhammad will be back in Manassas for sentencing approximately four to six weeks after the Virginia Beach jury recommends a sentence. By Virginia law, jurors recommend a sentence but a judge imposes it. A judge can sentence less than the jury recommendation, but not more.