Va. judge has had time in spotlight

Official presiding over trial of sniper suspect had role in John Bobbitt case

Millette `particularly well-suited'

October 13, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

For Virginia Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr., the unblinking attention of the nation's media and legions of curious onlookers that will accompany the first trial in last fall's sniper shootings are nothing new. A decade ago, just a month into his current job, Millette presided over half of the infamous domestic assault case involving Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt.

The Bobbitt case offered a firsthand lesson in how extraordinary public interest can transform the often little-noticed daily work of the bench, and Millette took careful note.

In the trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, which begins tomorrow with jury selection, Millette has barred television cameras from the courtroom and taken other steps to prevent the much-anticipated legal drama from descending into a media circus. It is just one measure, say those who know Millette, of the judge's efforts to ensure a fair trial in a case where much of the country views a guilty verdict as a foregone conclusion.

"It would be a very hard case for any of our judges, but Judge Millette is particularly well-suited to handle it," said Manassas attorney Kathleen L. Farrell, who has practiced in front of Millette. "He's very, very careful about protecting defendants' rights. ... He's going to make fair and reasoned decisions, and you're going to know exactly why he made those decisions."

Millette's career history, as a former state prosecutor who also spent 12 years at the defense table, has shaped his pragmatism on the bench, area attorneys say. Those who have tried cases before him describe an unflappable judge who never raises his voice or loses his temper.

Where some judges make their mark with flamboyant speechifying, the longtime Northern Virginia resident, who grew up in Alexandria and pursued a legal career after watching the courtroom drama Inherit the Wind, is known for his mild manner and low-key approach to the job.

"He's always made sure there's a level playing field," said attorney Bill Stephens, who has practiced law in Manassas since 1965. "He's always demonstrated that he'll listen, and he is willing to listen to what people have to say on the facts."

Still, Stephens said, "He's not wishy-washy about things. He's not afraid to make a decision."

In the 1993 Bobbitt case, Millette was assigned the assault case against John Wayne Bobbitt -- another judge heard the more closely watched trial against Lorena Bobbitt for cutting off her husband's penis after a domestic fight. John Bobbitt's trial, unlike his wife's, was not televised, but the case hinted at a new age in legal coverage as 24-hour news channels joined the mainstream networks and found a steady diet of breaking news in courthouses across the country.

In the decade since, trials as momentous as the O.J. Simpson murder case and the Oklahoma City bombing cases or as seemingly minor as actress Winona Ryder's shoplifting arrest have pushed otherwise-anonymous judges into the glare of national scrutiny.

For judges, a high-profile trial can make a career. It also can test one. And in the capital case against Muhammad, Millette's work has been complicated by several factors.

Muhammad is charged in part under an untested anti-terrorism law passed by Virginia lawmakers after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, making Millette the first state judge to rule on its constitutionality.

Also, while Muhammad's trial in the shooting death Oct. 9 of Dean Harold Myers, 53, is separate from the case against the second suspect in the sniper attacks, Jamaican teen-ager Lee Boyd Malvo, the two cases are inevitably intertwined. Malvo's trial in the shooting Oct. 14 of Linda Franklin, 47, outside a Home Depot store in Fairfax County, Va., is set to begin Nov. 10.

Both cases were moved far from the site of the shootings to better the odds of finding an impartial jury -- Muhammad's to Virginia Beach, Malvo's to Chesapeake. The logistics of moving the trial 200 miles have been daunting, and they required Millette to make arrangements such as a closed-circuit broadcast of the trial for sniper victims' families who are unable to be in the Virginia Beach courtroom, which has just 43 seats.

Millette, 54, has declined interview requests in the weeks leading to the Muhammad trial. In his only interview since being assigned to the case, he told The Washington Post last summer that his overriding concern was to ensure that Muhammad received an impartial and fair trial.

"I hope I've been able to handle all the cases in a way that allowed a fair trial," Millette told the newspaper in July. "I went into this profession to do the right thing. It's a great comfort to be able to do that."

Attorney Stephens described Millette's approach as balanced and humble.

"You would not know that Judge Millette is a judge just to meet him on the street," Stephens said. "He wouldn't tell you that. You might just see him out having pizza with his wife or something like that."

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