John Allen Muhammad left the 73-square-foot prison cell he had occupied on Virginia's death row early yesterday, climbed into a state corrections department vehicle and rode 150 miles to the Fairfax County courthouse to begin the process of his second sniper trial.
Muhammad, 43, already faces a death sentence for a slaying in Prince William County in October 2002 -- one of 10 during the three-week sniper rampage that terrorized the Washington area. Fairfax authorities have charged Muhammad with another of those killings, the shooting of Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot store, and Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said he was determined to follow through with the case despite criticism that a second Virginia prosecution would be costly and vulnerable to the same appeals as the first.
Franklin's daughter, Katrina Hannum, traveled from her home in Norfolk and watched Muhammad's first court appearance in Fairfax from the front row -- as she did during the trials of both Muhammad and his co-conspirator, Lee Boyd Malvo, last fall. She did not comment after the brief hearing.
Muhammad did not enter a plea yesterday. In Virginia courts, pleas are not entered until shortly before trial.
Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Jonathan C. Thacher set a trial date of Oct. 4. He also told Muhammad's attorneys that if they wanted to move the trial out of Fairfax, they must make the request by July 22, the first deadline for pretrial motions. Muhammad's attorneys, Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro, said they had not decided whether to seek a move.
Muhammad was convicted in the slaying of Dean H. Meyers at a Prince William gas station and sentenced to death. Malvo, 19, was convicted last year of capital murder in Franklin's slaying and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Malvo and Muhammad also are charged in Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland and the District, and there had been considerable speculation as to whether and where the pair might be tried next.
Greenspun, appointed by Thacher to represent Muhammad, as he did in the Prince William case, argued that no trial date should be set in Fairfax because Muhammad's right to a speedy trial had been violated. Greenspun noted that Muhammad was indicted in Fairfax, and a bench warrant issued, in November 2002. But Muhammad was not served with the warrant until May 27. Virginia law requires a trial within five months of an arrest.
Horan said later that "the arrest in this case was in May" and so the speedy-trial clock didn't start until then.
Muhammad wore a dark green jumpsuit and was held in handcuffs and leg shackles throughout the 30-minute hearing. His hair and beard appeared somewhat neater than at his last court appearance in March, when a judge imposed the death penalty. Thacher read him the three charges he faces: murder as an act of terrorism; murder of more than one person in a three-year period; and use of a firearm during a felony. The first two carry the death penalty.
When he entered the courtroom, Muhammad stood and glared briefly at Horan before taking his seat. He did not speak and was not asked any questions.
In his first trial, Prince William prosecutors characterized him as the "mastermind" of the sniper shootings, in part because there was no evidence that Muhammad had fired any of the shots. At Malvo's trial a month later, Horan declared that the then-17-year-old pulled the trigger on the rifle that killed Franklin as she loaded supplies into her car.
Prince William prosecutors were able to convince Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. that Muhammad could face the death penalty even though he wasn't the "triggerman," arguing that he was equally culpable. Millette's decision is believed to be the first time in Virginia that a defendant was sentenced to death in a shooting without pulling the trigger.
Millette's ruling, as well as the first test of Virginia's anti-terrorism law in Muhammad's case, are certain to be focuses of Muhammad's appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court. That case is expected to be argued in the fall and decided by early next year.
Horan would not say whether he would use the same arguments as did Prince William prosecutors.
The question of who actually fired which sniper shots is still unresolved. Muhammad has never spoken publicly about them. Malvo initially told investigators that he fired many of the shots, including the one that killed Franklin. But after months in jail, he recanted and told mental health interviewers that he had fired only the last shot, which killed Montgomery County bus driver Conrad E. Johnson.
Muhammad has been held on death row at the Sussex I maximum-security prison in Waverly, and he arrived in Fairfax shortly after 8 a.m., less than two hours before his hearing. Fairfax Sheriff's Lt. Tony Shobe said Muhammad would be held in a single cell, segregated from the rest of the Fairfax jail population, and would not have recreation or standard visiting privileges because of his status as a condemned prisoner.
Horan told the judge he estimated the trial would take four to six weeks, which he said later was based on the length of the first trial.
That trial was moved to Virginia Beach so a jury that was unaffected by the sniper shootings could be selected. After the hearing, Horan said, "I don't think there's any question [Muhammad] can get a fair trial here."