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Muhammad sniper trial moved to Virginia Beach

From Mike M. Ahlers
CNN Washington Bureau

John Allen Muhammad in a July 11 court appearance.
John Allen Muhammad in a July 11 court appearance.

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Order changing venue Comm. of Va. v. Muhammad (FindLaw, PDF)external link
John Allen Muhammad's trial will begin October 14 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. According to the 2000 Census, Virginia Beach has a population of 425,000.

Lee Boyd Malvo's trial will begin November 10 in Chesapeake, less than 20 miles from Virginia Beach. Chesapeake has a population of about 200,000, according to the 2000 Census.

Both Virginia Beach and Chesapeake are part of the military- and port-dominated region of Hampton Roads, Virginia, the 27th-largest metropolitan area, with more than 1.5 million residents.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad's trial was moved Wednesday 200 miles to Virginia Beach, Virginia, to ensure a fair trial, a judge ruled.

The ruling by Virginia Circuit Judge LeRoy Millette Jr. means Muhammad's trial will be held just miles away from his alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo. Both suspects' trials will be held far away from the Washington, D.C., suburbs they are accused of terrorizing.

"Good cause has been clearly shown that such change of venue is necessary to ensure a fair and impartial trial," Millette wrote.

Virginia Beach is about 200 miles from Prince William County, where Muhammad's trial was previously set to take place because one of the 10 killings blamed on the snipers took place at a gas station in Manassas.

The Virginia Beach courthouse is just a few miles from the one in Chesapeake where Lee Boyd Malvo's trial will take place. A judge last week moved his trial from Fairfax County, where a woman was killed outside a Home Depot.

Muhammad, 42, is charged in the October 9 slaying of Dean H. Meyers, 53, at a gas station. Malvo, 18, is facing trial in the October 14 shooting in Fairfax County of Linda Franklin, 47. Both could face the death penalty.

Muhammad's trial is scheduled to begin October 14; Malvo's trial is scheduled to begin on November 10.

All told, Muhammad and Malvo have been linked to 20 shootings, including 13 killings, in Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Department of Justice originally charged the snipers with federal violations, but then opted to move the two cases to state courts in Virginia, citing the facts of the cases and the "range" of possible penalties -- a term that has widely been interpreted as meaning the availability of the death penalty in the state courts.

Prosecution agrees with moving trial

Since the trials of Muhammad and Malvo could overlap -- with Muhammad's starting in mid-October and Malvo's starting one month later -- prosecutors were concerned about the logistics of accommodating trials in distant locales. Scores of witnesses and hundreds of items -- including the Bushmaster rifle allegedly used by the snipers -- will need to be shuttled between the venues.

Attorneys for both suspects had argued that the sniper attacks affected nearly everyone in the Washington area, making it impossible to find fair, unbiased jurors in the areas where any of the killings took place. Closed schools, police roadblocks and the general sense of fear that gripped the area during the three-week spree, defense attorneys argued, nonetheless affected potential jurors who didn't know any of the shooting victims.

Prosecutors in both cases originally opposed moving the trials, saying fair jurors could be found. But after Fairfax County Circuit Judge Jane Marum Roush ordered the Malvo trial moved, Prince William County prosecutor Paul Ebert dropped his opposition to changing venue, saying it would be "inconsistent" to move one trial but not the other.

Ebert said Wednesday's change of venue ruling, "takes away the issue that they intended to influence the population" where the trial would take place. "From a legal standpoint ... it's probably in the best interest to have this case transferred," he said.

The trial will be expensive, and Virginia Beach Mayor Meyera Oberndorf said, "We will call on the state and federal governments for financial assistance."

In a statement published on the Virginia Beach municipal Web site, Oberndorf added: "We in Virginia Beach are prepared to do our duty to the community and the nation to provide all the assistance we can."

CNN Correspondent Patti Davis contributed to this report.

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