Providing security for Muhammad trial a huge undertaking

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - A dim light shines through the night in the 10-by-8-foot jail cell where John Allen Muhammad resides when he is not on trial for capital murder.

A single security camera, positioned to capture his every vegan meal and prostrated prayer, feeds the images to a staff of sheriff's deputies who manage security for the man accused of being the mastermind behind the sniper shootings.

Protecting Muhammad, from himself and others, is an undertaking that has occupied Virginia Beach officials since his arrival here about 10 days ago.

As a high-profile suspect charged with capital murder, Muhammad is kept in administrative segregation, similar to the level of surveillance afforded suicidal inmates.

Security concerns also prompted officials to reschedule other criminal and civil trials during the first two weeks of Muhammad's trial to cut down on people coming in and out of the courthouse, according to Harvey Bryant, the Commonwealth's Attorney for the City of Virginia Beach.

Other courts that have been the setting for heavily spotlighted trials have followed a similar script.

Security was so tight during the 2001 arraignment of Gary Leon Ridgway, the Auburn, Wash., man charged in seven of the 49 killings attributed to the Green River Killer, that one of his late-arriving attorneys was not allowed in the courtroom after the hearing began.

National security issues also dog terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, who, like Muhammad, fired his team of appointed attorneys to represent himself against the government in a Virginia courtroom. Since taking charge of his defense, the French citizen charged with conspiring in connection in the Sept. 11 attacks, has complained that security measures prevented him from personally interviewing captured leaders of al- Qaida.

Richard J. Bonnie, criminal law professor at the University of Virginia Law School, said pro se defendants in high-profile cases are often impeded by additional security risks.

"There's an issue here with the tension between security and the defendant's right to effectively represent himself," Bonnie said. "In the Moussaoui case, they're concerned about communications with the outside world. That's not your problem [in Virginia Beach], but there may be common ground as it pertains to Muhammad's ability to interview other people and to have the routine access to materials."

Muhammad's very presence in this sprawling waterfront city in southeast Virginia is due in no small measure to the windowless concrete tunnel inmates shuffle through every day on their way to and from court, according to Paula Miller, spokeswoman for the Virginia Beach Sheriff's Office.

"That was one of the attractive security features that appealed to those ensuring his safety for trial," Miller said.

The narrow 250-foot enclosed passageway, which dips below a restricted parking lot, connects the three-story Virginia Beach Correctional Center to the city's Circuit Court, where Muhammad arrives shackled at the ankles and waist in time for Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. to begin court shortly after 9:30 a.m.

Some six hours earlier, about 3 a.m., Muhammad is awakened when the overhead light is brightened to signal dawn in his isolated cell. A deputy delivers a tray of foods prepared without animal products: usually two pieces of fresh fruit, cups of cereal, cups of rice milk and a few teaspoons of brown sugar. Apples and oatmeal one day, wheat bread and bananas the next.

He changes out of the standard-issue orange jumpsuit into street clothes and spends the rest of the early morning praying silently on a blanket folded on the floor or reading from one of the four books he brought with him from Prince William County. When he arrived at the jail two weeks ago, sheriff's deputies were surprised to see Muhammad, a Muslim, begin praying in the direction of Mecca, without having to ask which direction was east.

Inside Courtroom 10, six sheriff's deputies, wearing earpieces and armed with Glock 19 mm semiautomatics, shadow Muhammad's movements. When he addresses the jury, it is from the lectern that prosecutor Paul B. Ebert uses, but there are also stark differences between how freely Muhammad moves about the courtroom.

Now that Muhammad is representing himself, at least three deputies stand nearby, their eyes trained on the defendant.

Monday afternoon, the courtroom security contingent mushroomed briefly with the arrival of Lee Boyd Malvo, who is accused of being Muhammad's co-conspirator in the shootings. Brought in for an eyewitness identification, Malvo was accompanied by several officers.

Provisions had been made in the jail and courtroom to safely accommodate Muhammad and Malvo, whose transportation to Virginia Beach from Fairfax over the weekend was shrouded in secrecy. "We're certainly used to handling co-conspirators," said Sheriff Paul Lanteigne.

But the security necessary to protect Muhammad from himself, other inmates and the public, comes at a cost. On July 1, the sheriff's department's budget was cut by $1 million. Two weeks later, when the City of Virginia Beach accepted responsibility for holding the trial, concerns about providing adequate security forced the sheriff to hire 10 deputies.

The hires were made "with the expectation that we'd be able to recover some of the costs from the federal government and the state, including the Virginia State Compensation Board," which funds some deputy positions, said Miller, the spokeswoman.