MANASSAS, Va. – Lawyers for sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad (search) asked Monday for a judge rather than a jury to hear his trial, arguing that it would be impossible to find a fair jury anywhere in Virginia.
Failing that, the defense asked to move the trial from Prince William County (search), where they say pretrial publicity has been overwhelming.
The defense also wants a terrorism charge against Muhammad -- one of two death-penalty charges he faces -- tossed out because they say the law is unconstitutionally vague.
The motion seeking a bench trial is rare, and ordinarily prosecutors would have to agree before a judge would grant it.
Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert (search) could not be reached for comment Monday. He has 10 days to file a response to the defense motions. A hearing was scheduled June 30.
Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, have been linked to 20 shootings, including 13 deaths, in Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and the District of Columbia.
Defense lawyers have argued that there is no evidence linking Muhammad to the slaying for which he is charged -- the Oct. 9 shooting of a man outside a Manassas-area gas station. Malvo, in fact, confessed to the crime.
Prosecutors have responded that Malvo and Muhammad worked as a team and that it is irrelevant who pulled the trigger.
Joseph Bowman, a defense lawyer who has handled death-penalty cases in Virginia but is not connected to the sniper cases, said the defense may hope that a judge rather than a jury would be more likely to draw distinctions between the pair.
Still, Bowman said the defense request is unusual.
"When the commonwealth has to convince 12 people beyond a reasonable doubt, that's a lot more difficult than convincing one judge beyond a reasonable doubt," he said.
One charge against Muhammad was filed under an anti-terrorism law passed by Virginia after the Sept. 11 attacks. The law, which defines terrorism in part as an "attempt to intimidate the civilian population at large," has never been used before.
The defense motions say the definition is too vague, and could mean that everyone in Prince William County is a potential victim in Muhammad's case.