Lawyers for John Allen Muhammad yesterday formally asked the judge in the convicted sniper's second murder trial to move the case out of Fairfax County, citing heavy publicity and the effects of the shootings on the community. The judge said he would issue a written opinion soon.
The request prompted an outbreak of Yiddish in the courtroom of Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Jonathan C. Thacher. Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said the defense had a lot of "chutzpah" for decrying the heavy publicity, even as the defense lawyers planned a public presentation about the sniper case next week at a Fairfax Bar Association lunch.
Defense lawyer Peter D. Greenspun responded that Horan was "meshugeneh," or a crazy person, for implying that the defense was going to discuss any crucial information at the bar lunch.
Muhammad, 43, has been convicted of two counts of capital murder for the October 2002 sniper shootings in the Washington area, which claimed 10 lives. His first trial, prosecuted by Prince William County, was moved from Manassas to Virginia Beach to find an unbiased jury. Co-defendant Lee Boyd Malvo's trial, begun in Fairfax, was moved to Chesapeake for the same reason. Muhammad is charged in Fairfax in the Oct. 14, 2002, slaying of Linda Franklin at the Seven Corners Home Depot store.
Muhammad spoke in the Fairfax courtroom for the first time yesterday, complaining about an inability to receive his legal mail or paperwork. "Sometimes as much as two weeks pass before I can see any of the mail," Muhammad said. He also asked, "How does it make this courtroom safe by me coming in the court with no T-shirt, no underwear and no socks?"
Capt. Karen McClellan of the Fairfax sheriff's office, who met with the judge after the hearing, said she could not discuss whether Muhammad was being denied access to his paperwork, much of which sits in stacks in an empty cell next to his. McClellan said Muhammad is permitted to wear underwear.
In arguing for relocating Muhammad's trial, Greenspun provided Thacher with the change-of-venue orders entered by the judges in the two previous sniper trials. After Greenspun emphasized the heavy media coverage of the cases, Thacher asked whether such coverage was not available nationally. Greenspun said that it was but that the climate of fear, the traffic roadblocks and the event cancellations during the shootings had a specific impact only locally.
Later in the hearing, Greenspun again used Yiddish, calling The Washington Post "meshugeneh" for challenging Thacher's ruling that no motion in the case shall be made public until he reviews it. The Post also contested Thacher's orders sealing the defense billings and bench conference transcripts.
Thacher reversed himself yesterday and said that he would make the defense billings public, saying the public had a right to know how much it was paying for Muhammad's defense. But the judge said he would continue to seal bench conference transcripts and withhold all filings until he had a chance to read them to ensure that nothing in them would affect Muhammad's right to a fair trial. In almost every courtroom in the United States, legal papers are public the moment they are filed with the clerk's office.
The lawyers on both sides of the case, as well as several veteran prosecutors and defense lawyers in Fairfax, said they had never heard of a case in which a judge inspected motions before public release.