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Prosecutors in sniper trial willing to support change of venue

John Allen Muhammad
John Allen Muhammad

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MANASSAS, Virginia (CNN) -- Virginia prosecutors in the trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad said for the first time Friday that they would not oppose a change of venue outside the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

The state had earlier argued against moving the trial, despite defense claims that Muhammad could not get a fair trial in the county.

Prosecutor Paul Ebert said his decision was influenced by Fairfax County Judge Jane Marum Roush's decision to change the venue for the trial of Muhammad's alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo.

Judge LeRoy Millette said he is still considering a defense motion to move Muhammad's trial to another jurisdiction.

Ebert also said he would not oppose allowing a judge to hear the trial instead of a jury. The defense once filed a motion requesting a judge trial instead of a jury, but then withdrew it, saying at the time that it might submit a similar motion later on.

Muhammad is scheduled to stand trial for the October 9, 2002, murder of Dean Harold Meyers at a Sunoco gas station in Manassas, Virginia. Malvo is charged with the October 14, 2002, shooting death of Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot in Falls Church, Virginia.

Malvo, 18, and Muhammad, 42, have been linked to 20 shootings, including 13 deaths, in Virginia, Maryland, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C. If convicted, both could get the death penalty.

Judge keeps terrorism charge

Millette refused Friday to drop a terrorism charge against Muhammad, rejecting defense attorneys' arguments that it would be a "legal impossibility" to get an impartial jury to consider that charge.

Virginia's anti-terror law makes a murder defendant eligible for capital punishment if the crime was intended to intimidate the public or influence the government.

Muhammad's attorneys earlier this week argued that Virginia's terrorism law is flawed because it makes the entire civilian population of a county the victim -- so no county resident could be impartial. Since Muhammad has an "absolute right" to have a jury from Prince William County, where he is charged, there is no alternative but to dismiss the terrorism charge, they argued.

"The jury is going to carry the baggage of what happened in October back there (the jury room) with them," said defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro, referring to the sniper shootings in the Washington area. "It is too much of a burden to carry."

Prosecutors said that while many people were intimidated by the shootings, others were not, and an unbiased jury can be selected.

Muhammad and Malvo are the first people charged under Virginia's terrorism statute. Last month, Muhammad's attorneys unsuccessfully argued that the terrorism law was unconstitutionally vague and over-broad.

The law defines terrorism as an "act of violence... committed with the intent to (i) intimidate the civilian population at large; or (ii) influence the conduct or activities of the government of the United States, a state or locality through intimidation."

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