Terror trials head for Virginia 'rocket docket'
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Plaintiffs in civil trials usually have more flexibility than prosecutors to "court shop," looking for the state or federal jurisdiction that offers sympathetic juries or favorable precedents. Since the Sept. 11 attacks occurred in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, the Justice Department could have filed charges in any of those three venues.Skip to next paragraph
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But a number of factors beyond just the court's speedy reputation made Alexandria the favorite. For one thing, the court's four judges have already had experience in overseeing cases involving notorious defendants and mountains of classified documents. Two of the nation's top spies in the past decade - Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen - were prosecuted here.
The Alexandria courthouse also has tight security. Opened in 1996, the building includes separate traffic areas for defendants, and can be easily sealed off from the surrounding neighborhood. Snipers stood on the roof and armed officers patrolled outside the court during Mr. Lindh's first appearance on Jan. 25.
Also making the court attractive, at least to prosecutors: Top Justice Department officials located just across the Potomac River can keep a close eye on the trial. Perhaps more important, any appeal would go to the nation's most conservative federal Court of Appeals.
While no trial date has yet been set for Lindh, Mr. Moussaoui's jury selection is scheduled to begin in late September. Both Lindh and Moussaoui can expect short trials with little grandstanding by attorneys, if past practices are any guide. Judge Leonie Brinkema, who was randomly selected to preside over the Moussaoui case, has already rejected requests to televise the trial.
"You're not going to have an O.J. Simpson trial in either of these cases," says former federal prosecutor Andrew McBride.
The court gets its jurors from an area stretching from the Pentagon, past Washington's suburbs, to more outlying towns like Manassas, site of a Civil War battle.
Overall, the area produces a well-educated, white-collar jury pool full of current and retired government and high-tech workers. The jurors tend to be unsympathetic to criminals, says defense lawyer Plato Cacheris. Virginia jurors often vote in favor of the death penalty, which Moussaoui faces on four of the six counts on which he's charged.
Lawyers predict it will be particularly challenging to pick a jury only a few miles down the road from the Pentagon, where 189 people died in the Sept. 11 attack. Cranes still tower over the chunk missing from the Defense Department's headquarters, and Humvees patrol the perimeter.
"While it may not be as difficult to empanel an unbiased jury as in Manhattan, people's passions are inflamed," says Professor O'Neill.
Still, residents here vow to be open-minded. "I would do my best to give a fair and impartial reading of the evidence," says Susan Burke of Annandale, Va., waiting for her morning train. "But I wouldn't want to be a juror."