SEEKING JUSTICE; Sniper Trials Are Far Away in Try for Unbiased Jurors

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 12, 2003 | Go to article overview

SEEKING JUSTICE; Sniper Trials Are Far Away in Try for Unbiased Jurors


Byline: Jon Ward, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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