Court braces for frenzy of carjack murder trial Crowds expected for Basu case

April 12, 1993|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff Writer

Howard Circuit Court Administrator John Shatto realizes his courthouse may become a zoo today.

The courthouse is home to the trial of Bernard Eric Miller, a Washington youth charged in the Pam Basu carjacking murder -- one of the biggest cases in the county's history.

The seven men and five women of the jury will begin hearing testimony at about 9 a.m. today. Judge Dennis Sweeney will preside over the proceedings, which are expected to last at least two weeks.

Mr. Shatto said he doesn't know what to expect: a madhouse buzzing with reporters and spectators wanting the details of a crime that received national attention, a low-key affair like last week's jury selection, or something in between.

"We're just going to go and see what happens," said Mr. Shatto, who has been the court administrator for about two years.

Whatever happens, Mr. Shatto said, he's ready for it.

For much of the last two weeks, Mr. Shatto has kept "Managing Notorious Cases" on his desk to help prepare for the Miller trial.

The book, published last year by the National Center for State Courts, details how other courts handled major trials, such as the Marion S. Barry drug case in Washington.

It also offers recommendations for media coverage, courthouse security and ways to make sure the big trials don't disrupt other proceedings.

Mr. Shatto and the Sheriff's Office have taken several steps to prepare for a possible onslaught:

* At least two deputies from the Sheriff's Office -- in addition to the two or three who regularly attend trials -- will be assigned to the courtroom to provide extra security for a large audience.

* The court's grand jury room has been converted into a press room, stocked with desks and a bank of six telephones. Reporters have been given passes proclaiming "PRESS" for easy access to the courthouse.

* At least one row of seats has been set aside for reporters in the courthouse's grand courtroom. Relatives and close friends of the victim and the defendant also will be provided with guaranteed seats.

* The court's three other judges will handle many of the criminal and civil cases that would have gone to Judge Sweeney during the Miller proceedings.

Mr. Shatto sees the case as the county's biggest in years, bigger than the 1991 trial of Eric Tirado, who was convicted of murdering a state police trooper.

"I expect this to be a larger trial than Tirado," he said. "It will certainly get more attention."

Court officials may have gotten a taste of what to expect last Monday, the first day of jury selection.

On that day, cameramen and photographers waited outside for a chance to capture Mr. Miller on film as sheriff's deputies escorted him into the courthouse. Inside the courtroom, television news artists worked quickly to sketch Mr. Miller as he sat at the defense table with his attorney during jury selection.

Later, about a half-dozen reporters gathered in the parking lot for interviews: first with a woman excused from jury duty, then with Laurack Bray, a Washington attorney for Mr. Miller.

Despite the flurry, the courthouse returned to routine the next day. The press room was temporarily closed. The staff was nonchalant.

Today is the day they have been awaiting.

Mr. Miller is charged with first-degree murder and 18 other counts in the Sept. 8 slaying of Dr. Basu, who was dragged to her death after being forced from her BMW near her Savage home.

Mr. Miller faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole if convicted. Prosecutors are prohibited from seeking the death penalty against juveniles under state law.

Co-defendant Rodney Eugene Soloman, 27, of Washington D.C., faces the death penalty for his role in the slaying. His case has been moved to Baltimore County, but a trial date has not been set.

Judge Sweeney said officials will do their best to ensure that the Miller trial does not interfere with regular courthouse operations.

"This case will be handled in the same fashion we would handle any similar type of case," he said.

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