Manassas Journal Messenger | Experts: Jurors more educated, conservative

The decision over John Allen Muhammad’s guilt or innocence will be in the hands of 12 Virginia Beach jurors, and the makeup of that jury is still not known.

Where they are coming from is.

Virginia Beach has a large, mostly conservative population like Prince William County. With a population of 427,000, it is home to four military bases, including Oceana Naval Air Station, whose fighter jets are seen flying high above the city courthouse during the day. It is also home to Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.

“You tend to get an extremely conservative jury pool in Virginia Beach and the juries tend to be better educated and more affluent than other jurisdictions,” said Jeff Gray, a Virginia Beach lawyer.

Yet while the demographics of Virginia Beach are widely accepted to favor prosecutors, legal observers say it is only a limited indication of what the jury will look like and what its decision will be.

Manassas defense attorney Casey Stevens said labeling conservatives, with their more black and white view of the world rather than the seeing of more gray as with liberals, oversimplifies the jury selection process.

“It’s like trying to pigeonhole people because of the clothing that they wear” since it is one of thousands of things that make up a human being, he said.

Applying the label to any jury from the city would also be inaccurate, said Chesapeake lawyer Eric Plumlee, who is following the trial as an analyst for the NBC affiliate in Hampton Roads.

“I think people assume that being in southeastern Virginia you’re going to end up with a conservative jury, and probably for the most part you do. But it’s not a given that you’re going to end up with an ultra-conservative, Bible Belt jury,” Plumlee said. “It’s such a large city and they pull from so many different areas that the jury pool is just a crap shoot.”

The city has pockets of affluence, such as on the north end near the oceanfront, but also a couple miles inland several areas of low-income and government housing, he said.

The city’s labor force is 44 percent white collar, 18 percent blue collar, and 21 percent military, according to a 1999 survey, although many active duty personnel are not registered to vote in the city, lawyers said.

The trial was moved 200 miles from Prince William to Virginia Beach in July after the defense argued the “acts of terrorism” affected the populace at large, so the jury pool would be victims.

James Duane, a law professor at the Regent University School of Law in Virginia, Beach said demographics won’t be the big difference in this case. The defense, barring it does not have an unknown alibi for Muhammad, will be focused on getting jurors who are trained to be meticulous in analyzing things, to the degree of hairsplitting. They may try to win on a technicality, like the fact that the government could not prove Muhammad pulled the trigger, Duane said.

The analytical types like engineers and mathematicians are often sought because they tend to add up the evidence and decide on that, not based on emotion or sympathy, Plumlee said.

Judge LeRoy Millette has assured jurors he will not sequester them, a move that would definitively shield them from intense media coverage of the case.

Joshua Dressler, a criminal law professor at Ohio State University’s law school, said the benefit of sequestering works to the defense’s side, but it can be a risky proposition for a defense to push for, because jurors can take out their anxiety of being away from their families on the defense.

Even so, Dressler said if he were the judge, he would seriously consider sequestering the jury. If there were any case that it made sense, it would be in this case, he said.

Dressler said the atrocious scheme behind the killings and its description in the press will make getting an impartial verdict next to impossible.

Plumlee and Stevens agreed it is impossible to find jurors without pre-conceived notions of the case, but the jurors take an oath to set that knowledge aside and just consider evidence presented in court to make an impartial decision.

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