MANASSAS, Va. - Lawyers for sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad withdrew a request yesterday that their client be tried by a judge instead of a jury, and the judge in the case said he would consider moving the trial elsewhere in Virginia to ensure a fair trial.
Muhammad's attorneys said they would file a new motion this week regarding how their client should be tried, but it seemed less likely that they would vigorously pursue a bench trial. They spent much of a 2 1/2 -hour hearing yesterday arguing that the trial should be moved from the Washington region.
"There is simply no way to take a chance - if the case is not moved out of Prince William County - of the taint that is going to occur," said Muhammad attorney Peter D. Greenspun. "The job is not to find jurors who can set aside the publicity, but jurors who can set aside the impact on them."
Prince William County Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. said he would consider moving the trial to another location in Virginia, farther from Washington, and that he would rule on the motion for a venue change at a later date.
Prosecution is opposed
Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert opposed moving the trial, arguing that a fair jury could be found in the county, about 30 miles west of Washington.
Muhammad, 42, and his co-defendant, Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, are accused of killing 10 people in the region during three weeks in October.
"I don't think many people would say, 'I was emotionally scarred and affected and to this day continue to have that feeling about this case,'" Ebert said.
Muhammad will be tried in the shooting death of Dean Harold Meyers of Gaithersburg at a Manassas gas station on Oct. 9. He has been indicted on two counts of capital murder for the same crime.
The judge denied yesterday a defense motion to throw out one of those murder charges filed under the state's new terrorist law. The law, passed in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, makes it a capital crime to commit an act of terrorism with the intent of intimidating the population at large or influencing the government.
"This is about the type of terrorism that occurred on Sept. 11. It's not about a crime spree, no matter how serious it was," Greenspun said. "It is clear that the prosecution is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. They are trying to fit this crime spree into the terrorism statute, and it simply does not fit."
Greenspun suggested that Muhammad was charged under the terrorism law as a way to ensure he would get the death penalty even if the state cannot prove he pulled the trigger to shoot Meyers. Malvo has told investigators that he was the shooter in several of the killings, and Muhammad's attorneys have seized on that statement to argue that their client cannot be put to death.
But prosecutors argued their evidence would show the terrorism law applies to Muhammad, and the judge agreed that he cannot dismiss the charge before he has seen the evidence.
Muhammad's trial is scheduled to start Oct. 14 and last four to six weeks.
Greenspun said he intends to call several dozen witnesses and he said prosecutors have indicated they will call between several dozen and 200 witnesses.
The judge has begun making arrangements to show the trial on closed-circuit television in two locations - one for the families of victims of the sniper shootings and one for journalists.