Logistics for sniper trial a large-scale `headache'

Case: Preparations in Virginia Beach for the case of John Allen Muhammad required three months and details far beyond the courtroom.

October 11, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl and Andrea F. Siegel | Stephen Kiehl and Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - One truckload of evidence. Five new metal detectors. Ten new sheriff's deputies. Seventy concrete barriers around the courthouse - and enough deluxe portable toilets to handle a press corps of presidential proportions.

The trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad begins Tuesday in Virginia Beach, and the preparations have gone far beyond assembling the evidence and witnesses to prove his guilt or innocence.

Lawyers and law enforcement authorities are facing all sorts of other pressing questions, such as: Where do you store the evidence in Virginia Beach? How do you get witnesses into town, and where do they stay? And how do you get the phones to work?

"It's a major headache," said Muhammad defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro, who is taking four staffers with him and has designated one to deal with witnesses. "You've got to get them plane fare, get them taxis and places to stay and make sure they've got food to eat and show up to court on time."

The logistics of moving a trial are never easy. They're even trickier when the cases are as complex as those against Muhammad, 42, and his co-defendant, Lee Boyd Malvo. 18. Both trials were moved from Northern Virginia to southeastern Virginia to find jurors unaffected by last fall's shootings.

Prosecutors in the Muhammad case said they plan to introduce evidence from up to 15 shootings across the country they have connected to the two defendants. About 20 investigators from the sniper task force have moved to Virginia Beach, and a truck full of evidence went down Monday. Defense attorneys will be taking their own trucks soon.

"If I take my file as it exists now, it will take me two pickup loads to move," said Craig S. Cooley of Richmond, one of Malvo's five defense attorneys. "Probably every one of us has pretty much that much."

The Malvo defense team will be staying in a Norfolk hotel because it couldn't afford the trial-inflated rate of $259-a-night offered by hotels in Chesapeake, where Malvo will be tried. Muhammad defense attorneys will stay in a Virginia Beach hotel, as will the prosecution, while the judge has been provided with a condominium to avoid everyone else.

To cope with the onslaught, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach have set aside about $1.6 million to pay for extra security, overtime and supplies. Every reporter given a seat in the courtroom for the Muhammad trial, for instance, will be given a photo identification with a bar code that will be scanned outside the courtroom.

"We've had a lot of high-profile cases, including death penalty cases, but nothing that has ever garnered this much attention," said Paula Miller, spokeswoman for the Virginia Beach Sheriff's Office, where a task force of 30 people has been meeting for almost three months to plan for the trial.

Miller expects more than 200 journalists and up to 34 television satellite trucks to arrive for the trial. The electric company has put in new power lines, and near the space reserved for the television trucks, officials have installed a portable restroom resembling a double-wide trailer.

"It's not your typical carnival-style port-a-potty," Sheriff Paul J. Lanteigne said at a media preview day last week, as reporters nodded in approval. The sheriff's staff noted that the courthouse is in a historic district, and blue plastic portable toilets would clash with the classic Georgian architecture.

While officials in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach did not ask for the trials and don't look forward to them, they're not complaining.

"This is largely a military community, and we understand what it means to serve," said Virginia Beach Mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf. "We see this as another opportunity to serve. That's the only explanation I can give you as to why we're not huffing and puffing and pulling our hair out."

Virginia Beach has budgeted $800,000 for the Muhammad trial. The figure includes money to hire 10 sheriff's deputies and buy five metal detectors and enough concrete barriers to surround the courthouse.

The city has found office space in its courthouse complex for the trial judge and his staff of four and the prosecution and defense teams. And the sheriff's office has cleared a vault in the courthouse to store evidence.

Chesapeake's plans are less final because Malvo's trial doesn't start until Nov. 10. The city estimates it will cost $800,000, with almost half of that attributed to accommodating the media. The additional electrical service alone is expected to cost $70,000. Officials expect to recoup more than $100,000 by charging news media for television truck parking and office space.

Even so, said Mark S. Cox, the city's public information director, "we are still losing a lot of money here."

Defense attorneys aren't getting rich, either. Muhammad's court-appointed attorneys say they have put thousands of dollars in investigative costs on their personal credit cards and have joked in court that they're maxed out.

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