Judge bars TV cameras in trial of sniper suspect

Friday, December 13, 2002

MANASSAS, Va. -- A judge Thursday barred television cameras from next year's trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, saying such media coverage could compromise his right to a fair trial.

Prince William County Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. also said trial would begin Oct. 14 and he set aside eight weeks for what is expected to be a closely watched case.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association said it was considering an appeal.

"It is unfortunate that the most neutral and accurate means of presenting the trial has been banned," said Barbara Cochran, president of the association.

Muhammad, 41, is charged with capital murder in the death of Dean Harold Meyers of Gaithersburg, Md., who was shot Oct. 9 while fueling his car at a gas station in Prince William County.

Meyers was one of 13 people hit -- 10 fatally -- by sniper fire during a three-week shooting spree in suburban Washington, D.C. Muhammad and 17-year-old John Lee Malvo are suspected in all 13, as well as eight other shootings across the country.

Problematic cameras

Prosecutors and defense attorneys opposed putting TV cameras in the courtroom for Muhammad's trial. Prosecutor Paul Ebert said the coverage would detract from courtroom decorum. He has said his experience with the Lorena Bobbitt penis-slashing trial, which was televised, convinced him that TV cameras are problematic.

"The court well knows that at one point in time I had no objection to live coverage, but I've changed my mind based on personal experience," he said. "Witnesses, for lack of a better word, tend to ham it up."

Barbara Van Gelder of the news directors association disputed the comparison between this case and the Bobbitt case. "This is not a celebrity matter, this is not a salacious matter," she said.

The judge said he would allow a still camera on a day-to-day basis. Defense attorneys Peter Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro had objected to that; Ebert did not.

Greenspun and Shapiro had argued in court papers that TV cameras could lead to saturation media coverage that would taint the jury pool and deny Muhammad the right to a fair trial.

Malvo, 17, is also charged with capital murder, in Fairfax County. His court-appointed guardian is preparing for a Jan. 14 preliminary hearing at which a judge is expected to determine whether he will be tried as an adult and face the death penalty in the shooting of FBI analyst Linda Franklin.

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