FAIRFAX, Va. – A judge ordered a change of venue Wednesday for the trial of sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo (search), moving the case from Fairfax County to Chesapeake, 200 miles to the south.
Circuit Court Judge Jane Marum Roush said she feared Malvo wouldn't be able to get a fair trial in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, where the sniper attacks terrorized residents over a three-week period last fall.
"I believe that venue should be transferred to a jurisdiction outside the Washington-Richmond corridor, where many citizens lived in fear during the month of October 2002 as a result of the crimes with which the defendant is charged," Roush wrote in ordering the move.
Defense lawyers had requested a change of venue for two reasons: They argued that massive pretrial publicity had tainted the jury pool against their client, and they said every resident of Fairfax County (search) could be considered a victim, considering the locked down schools and wave of fear that gripped the region.
Ten people, all apparently targeted at random, were killed in the Washington area in what prosecutors have said was a scheme to extort $10 million from the government.
In all, 18-year-old Malvo and John Allen Muhammad (search), 42, have been linked to 20 shootings, including 13 deaths, in Virginia, Maryland, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C.
Malvo is facing trial first for the Oct. 14 shooting in Fairfax County of Linda Franklin, 47. If convicted of capital murder, he could face the death penalty.
Prosecutors had opposed a change of venue in the case and asked Roush to at least attempt to seat a jury in Fairfax before assuming that an impartial jury could not be found. Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said the argument that every resident of the county was a victim of the sniper shootings was an insult to the victims' families.
Roush had indicated during court arguments last month that she found the arguments about victims more compelling than the arguments about publicity.
Chesapeake's City Council opposed moving the Malvo trial to their city, and judges in that district had also expressed concerns about the potential disruption in their courthouse.
Roush said in her ruling that she considered the opposition but felt compelled to move the trial anyway. Chesapeake is a city of about 200,000 near Norfolk in southeast Virginia.
Lawyers for Muhammad, who is charged with capital murder in the Oct. 9 slaying of Dean H. Meyers, 53, outside a gas station just north of Manassas, have also asked for a change of venue. The judge in that case has taken the issue under advisement.
Malvo's trial is scheduled for November, and Roush will still preside.
Michael Arif, his lead attorney, had agonized over the decision to seek a new venue, fearing that he could end up in a jurisdiction with less racial diversity than Fairfax. Chesapeake, however, has a substantially larger black population -- 28 percent compared to Fairfax County's 9 percent. Malvo is black.
Chesapeake has sent two men to death row since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (search) of Virginia.
The city's population is mostly conservative and its juries are strict but fair, Commonwealth's Attorney Randy Smith said. He said defendants in Chesapeake seem to get harsher sentences than those in other Virginia cities of comparable size.
"Does that mean they are more likely to impose the death penalty? I couldn't really say," Smith said.