Judge allows open hearing in sniper case

MANASSAS, Va. - A judge denied a request yesterday by sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad's attorneys to close a hearing on the admissibility of potentially inflammatory evidence.

But Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. said he will take as many precautions as possible to prevent unnecessary disclosure of sensitive information.

Defense lawyers filed a motion Tuesday seeking to exclude certain pieces of evidence from the trial, which is set to begin next month. The motion was filed under seal, so it is not known exactly what evidence the defense wants excluded.

In court yesterday, defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro said some of the evidence is clearly unfounded and would be inadmissible at trial. Disclosing it in a hearing would unfairly taint the jury pool, he argued.

One item that he specifically objects to is a statement purportedly made by Muhammad that "America got what it deserved" after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Prosecutors have said they may introduce that evidence during the trial's sentencing phase.

Millette said some damaging disclosures could be avoided by referring to specific evidence by number instead of saying it in open court. Defense attorneys have objected to at least 17 specific items.

Prosecutors and attorneys for The Sun, The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Richmond Times-Dispatch sought to keep the hearing open. The media lawyers objected to Millette's decision to refer to some of the items in the hearing by number.

Muhammad, 42, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, have been charged in 13 shootings, which killed 10 people, over a three-week span in October in Virginia, Maryland and Washington. They are also suspected in or charged with shootings in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Arizona and Washington state.

Muhammad goes on trial Oct. 14 in the shooting death of Dean Harold Meyers outside a Manassas-area gas station. The trial was moved to Virginia Beach.

Malvo is set to go on trial Nov. 10 in the shooting death of FBI analyst Linda Franklin outside a Falls Church store. His trial was moved to Chesapeake, near Virginia Beach.