Wednesday, March 05, 2008
Abingdon and Christiansburg: Worlds apart
A judge said too many people in Montgomery County knew of the William Morva case. That is not the case in Washington County.
- Homicide on the Huckleberry: An interactive project tracing Morva's steps on the Huckleberry Trail in 2007
ABINGDON -- It may be only 100 miles from Christiansburg, but it became clear during the first day of jury selection in William Morva's case that the two towns are a world apart.
In stark contrast to an attempt months ago to seat a jury in Montgomery County, very few of the Washington County residents questioned Tuesday were familiar with Morva, his case or either of the men he is accused of killing.
By the end of Tuesday, 13 potential jurors had been chosen for what will be a pool of 24.
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Ray Grubbs decided to move Morva's trial to Washington County Circuit Court after presiding over three days of jury selection in September in Christiansburg. After seating the required pool of potential jurors, Grubbs announced that it had become clear too many people had strong ties to the case.
Morva is accused of overpowering a Montgomery County deputy who had escorted him to Montgomery Regional Hospital early on the morning of Aug. 20, 2006, for treatment. Officers say he took the deputy's loaded gun and used it to fatally shoot security guard Derrick McFarland as Morva escaped from the hospital.
Morva, now 26, is accused of fatally shooting Montgomery County Sheriff's Cpl. Eric Sutphin the next morning on the Huckleberry Trail as Sutphin took part in a hunt for Morva that lasted nearly 37 hours and prompted Virginia Tech to shut down its campus on the first day of school.
As prosecutors and defense attorneys questioned potential jurors in September, it was difficult to find any who weren't affected in some way by the killings or by the hunt for Morva through their affiliations with the many agencies involved: Virginia Tech; the Blacksburg, Christiansburg and Virginia Tech police departments; the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office; Virginia State Police; Montgomery Regional Hospital; and the Montgomery County Public Schools.
Many of them admitted they thought Morva was guilty and said they would not be able to give him a fair trial.
But in Abingdon on Tuesday, it was only the potential that Morva could be sentenced to death that proved to be an issue for potential jurors.
Of 21 people who were questioned in groups of three, seven were released because of their feelings about the death penalty -- three who said they were against it and four who said they would automatically vote for it if they found Morva guilty of one of the three counts of capital murder he faces.
Once the court reaches a pool of 24, that number will be winnowed down to 14 -- 12 jurors and two alternates -- after the prosecution and the defense each strike five people from the pool.
Two panels of more than 30 people to be questioned were sworn in, and Morva smiled and waved at them as he was introduced as the defendant by Grubbs. He has pleaded not guilty to the seven charges against him and sat stroking his long beard throughout most of Tuesday's proceedings.
Jury selection is expected to resume at 9 a.m. today.