A Prince William County judge scheduled the first capital murder trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad for October and ruled yesterday that the trial won't be publicly televised because a nationwide broadcast could infringe on Muhammad's rights.
Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. said Muhammad's trial would start Oct. 14, a year after the Washington area was terrorized by 13 shootings and the anniversary of one of them -- the slaying of FBI analyst Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot in Fairfax County.
Muhammad, 41, will be tried in Prince William in the Oct. 9 killing of Dean Harold Meyers, who was shot once in the head as he pumped gas at a Sunoco station north of Manassas. Muhammad and John Lee Malvo, 17, are charged or suspected in 13 shootings in the Washington area -- 10 of them fatal -- and eight other attacks across the country.
Malvo's first trial will be in Fairfax County, where he is charged with killing Franklin. A date for that capital murder trial has not been set.
Yesterday's hearing in Prince William focused largely on arguments over whether Muhammad's trial should be televised. Networks including ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and Fox joined several local affiliates in asking permission for two cameras to monitor the court proceedings. The news organizations would share the cameras.
Muhammad's defense team and Prince William prosecutors opposed the request, arguing that broadcasting the trial could affect how people behave in the courtroom and could seriously damage Muhammad's chances of getting a fair trial later in other jurisdictions.
Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert said he learned a lesson during the televised trial of Lorena Bobbitt nine years ago. Some witnesses "ham it up" in the presence of cameras, he said, and others are too frightened to testify.
Ebert said real-time coverage of the Muhammad trial would be watched across the country, and potential jurors would hear details about cases against both suspects.
"It might not affect this proceeding, but there's no way that people in Alabama and Louisiana won't look at it," Ebert said. "It doesn't add anything to this proceeding. If anything, it takes away from it."
Peter D. Greenspun, one of Muhammad's attorneys, mentioned the O.J. Simpson trial in arguing that TV could influence courtroom behavior: "It would create an actual prejudice in this and all future prosecutions."
Barbara VanGelder, a Washington attorney for the networks, argued that there is tremendous public interest in the case and that the public is entitled to witness the trial directly through television. She dismissed as speculative the concerns of prosecutors and defense attorneys that broadcasts would influence the trial or potential jurors in later trials.
"This is not a celebrity matter. This is not a salacious matter," VanGelder argued. "It affects the greater Washington metropolitan area. We are . . . the victims."
In ruling against TV cameras, Millette said that he did not want to impede the public's ability to follow the case but that "Mr. Muhammad's rights are paramount." He said it was more than mere speculation that participants in the trial would be affected "by having their every word broadcast and seen by many people across the country."
Millette left open the possibility of using closed-circuit TV for victims' families, journalists and perhaps others. He also gave a preliminary ruling that still photography would be allowed at the trial, which he scheduled to last eight weeks. Prosecutors and Muhammad's attorneys said they don't think it will take that long.
Muhammad wore an orange jail jumpsuit and laceless sneakers. His ankles were shackled. For most of the hearing, he sat upright, staring forward, his elbows resting on the table and his fingers entwined in front of his mouth. At times, he conferred with his attorneys in whispers, and he stood to answer the judge's questions with, "Yes, sir."
Greenspun suggested the Oct. 14 trial date after Muhammad waived his constitutional right to a speedy trial. He said in an interview that the date would give both sides enough time to fully prepare a very complex case.
He also said he hopes to find an impartial jury in Prince William, rather than seek to move the trial.
Greenspun said, "The jurors selected from Prince William County will be those who know that they will be able to uphold the Constitution and decide this case solely on the evidence presented at trial, assuring that Mr. Muhammad receives a fair trial and the same due process to which every person in this community is entitled."
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney James A. Willett, a member of the team prosecuting Muhammad in Prince William, said, "It's our hope that with the passage of time, the emotions will have less of an impact than they do now. What will be of importance is whether potential jurors can put aside what they've heard about the case."