Terror trials head for Virginia 'rocket docket'

The federal courthouse here along Mill Road could be mistaken more for an office building than a house of justice. Absent are the usual neoclassical columns that make you feel like you've stumbled into the Parthenon.

Instead, the red-brick building is a cubist 10-story high rise, across the street from a condominium complex. The lone distinguishing feature of what goes on inside is a blindfolded statue of justice surrounded by a tortoise and hare, and, more important, an insignia that reads: "Justice delayed, justice denied."

That sentiment, more than anything else, makes the US District Court in this Virginia suburb across the Potomac from Washington one of the most unusual in the country - and this week one of the most visible.

The court's reputation for speedy trials, no-nonsense judges, and tough-on-crime jurors has earned it the nickname the "rocket docket." It's one reason the US Justice Department chose this Virginia venue as the site to prosecute "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, who is scheduled to appear in court here today for a bail hearing, and Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th Sept. 11 hijacker.

While laws are the same in federal courts throughout the country, values shared among judges or juries in any single jurisdiction can affect - in some cases substantially - how trials proceed. It's part of the human element that makes justice in the United States diverse and not always predictable.

Some federal courts are known for their deft handling of complex financial cases. Others field juries that may yield verdicts more lenient to defendants. Here, efficiency is the top priority. "It's a very efficient, very fast court," says William Dolan, a local lawyer who frequently appears in the court.

No leaving the podium, please

Inside, the four judges who dispense justice beneath the court's 22-foot ceilings set trial dates quickly and deny almost all motions for extensions. Unlike other courts in which he appears, Mr. Dolan says the judges bar lawyers from leaving the podium while quizzing witnesses and don't like audio-visual shows that slow trials down. He says he's only gotten two extensions on cases from judges here in 30 years of practice.

As a result, trials that can take two weeks elsewhere may be over in two or three days in Alexandria. In fact, the average criminal trial here takes 5.2 months to conduct - less than half the 13.5 months it takes in Manhattan. The national average is 6.5 months. Plaintiffs in civil cases looking for a fast resolution also favor the Virginia court, which is ranked fourth nationally for moving cases quickly to trial.

Speedy trials can benefit prosecutors, by giving defense lawyers less time to prepare. "Sometimes the case needs time to hatch, to have plea negotiations, to investigate, to think about the case," says Peter Greenspun, a defense attorney in Fairfax, Va.

Yet many lawyers credit the court's judges for running a tight ship that ensures defendants don't languish without a verdict for too long. "It's a very good court," says Michael O'Neill, a law professor at George Mason University here.

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.

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.

A tough jury pool

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."

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