Virginia Town Braces for D.C. Sniper Trial

Chesapeake will soon be known for more than its rankings as one of America's safest cities or one of the top 50 fabulous places to raise a family.

The city of 200,000, located about 200 miles south of Washington, D.C., will host the trial of sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo (search), Circuit Court Judge Jane Marum Roush ruled on Wednesday. And business owners and residents are debating whether the venue change is a blessing or a curse.

"Chesapeake will be noticed because it will be nationally broadcast," said Ray Patel, owner of the Best Value Inn in Chesapeake, one of the many hotels that may benefit from what is expected to be a huge influx of media. "It will be just like the O.J. Simpson trial (search)."

Chesapeake has been ranked as one of America's top five cities for starting and growing a small business, and is home to big employers like Canon (search), Lockheed Martin, Verizon and Volvo. The median family income is just under $51,000 a year.

Defense lawyers said they asked for the venue change because there was too much pre-trial publicity in the Washington area. That, combined with the belief that every resident of Fairfax County feels victimized, would taint the jury pool, they claimed.

Malvo, 18, will go on trial Nov. 10 for the fatal shooting of FBI analyst Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot store in Falls Church, Va. He and John Allen Muhammad, 42, have been linked to 20 shootings, including 13 deaths, in Virginia, Maryland, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Washington. Both face the death penalty.

"We know that Chesapeake will provide an intelligent, unbiased jury pool and we are confident that we will be able to empanel an objective and well-reasoned jury," Malvo's defense team said Wednesday.

"We hope that the leaders and citizens of Chesapeake know that were this not absolutely necessary, it would not have been our choice to move this trial."'

Chesapeake's City Council opposed the move. Some judges were concerned about disruptions in their new courthouse. The courthouse has fairly large rooms to hold the anticipated onslaught of news media and also has an underground tunnel connecting it to the prison.

"Needless to say, I am disappointed in Judge Roush's decision," Mayor Bill Ward said during a press conference Wednesday, before promising the city will nonetheless work with the court "to minimize the impact to the city, our citizens and our employees."

"I have confidence in the city's public safety officials to ensure the safety of the courts, our residents and employees while allowing the citizens of Chesapeake to go about their daily business," he said.

Patel said he thinks the trial could be a boon for the area's hotel business. But other local business owners didn't have much of an opinion.

"I don't think it's going to affect them [local businesses] one way or the other," said Frankie Louer, who works at A Floral Fantasy. "I don't have a problem with it … I feel like it would probably be easier to put it here than in Washington, D.C."

Others just want the case to be closed as soon as possible.

"Personally, I would rather not have the recognition -- to avoid a situation like that," said local restaurant owner Tara Sciortina, adding that she hopes the crowds won't discourage regular customers.

Changes of venue are expensive and aren't generally granted. But in high-profile cases, defense attorneys often successfully argue their clients can't get a fair trial in the area most affected by the crime.

Chesapeake has sent only two men to death row since 1976, according to a report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia in 2000; Virginia has sent 88 people.

The sprawling suburb in the military- and port-dominated region of Hampton Roads is traditionally conservative. Chesapeake Commonwealth's Attorney Randy Smith told The Associated Press that the city's juries are strict but fair; defendants seem to get harsher sentences than those in comparable Virginia cities.

"Does that mean they are more likely to impose the death penalty? I couldn't really say," Smith told the Associated Press.

Malvo's attorneys worried a different venue would be less diverse than Fairfax County; Malvo is black, as were some of his alleged victims.

But whites make up 71 percent and blacks make up 27 percent of Chesapeake's population. In Fairfax County, 69.9 percent of the total population is white; 8.6 percent is black.

The racial makeup of the jury probably won't make much of a difference, said Rob Tarver, a criminal defense attorney and legal analyst for The Northstar Network.

"Statistics and studies show and demonstrate that African-American counties and jurors, when they're faced with facts that say they should convict, are every bit … as willing to convict as any other jurors," he said.

Although Chesapeake is about 200 miles away from the heart of where the sniper attacks took place, residents and others say it was still too close for comfort.

"I think the guy's guilty, they could have saved the money and give him what he deserves" in Fairfax County, Patel said.

"While it may be physically far away, there was a specter of fear that was cast in this whole case," Tarver noted. "I would probably have to question whether that 200 miles distance is enough to really affect, or to reduce that specter of fear."