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CNN LIVE SUNDAY

Interview With Jerry Shargel

Aired June 29, 2003 - 18:20   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN ANCHOR: Beltway sniper suspect John Allen Muhammed scheduled to return to court tomorrow. Muhammed is one of two suspects linked to 20 shootings in five states and the District of Columbia. Prosecutors say they believe that they can find an impartial jury to hear the case, but they are willing to consider allowing a judge to rule in a bench trial, if Muhammed waives his right to a jury trial. The defense says it cannot get a bench trial, then it wants a change of venue.
The sniper shootings, of course, captured headlines for weeks until the suspects themselves were caught. Would a bench trial be more fair than one before a jury?

Jerry Shargel has defended a number of high profile cases, including John Gotti. He's in New York to help explain if a bench trial could help or hurt the sniper suspects.

Thanks very much for being with us.

JERRY SHARGEL, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: How are you, Marty?

SAVIDGE: Good, thank you. What do you think of this, the prospect of perhaps having the judge try the case?

SHARGEL: Well, a bench trial is very unusual and potentially dangerous way to go. I think conventional wisdom suggests that if there is any chance of sparing John Muhammed's life, any chance, however remote it may seem at the moment of winning an acquittal and engendering unreasonable doubt, it would be before a jury, a jury that might have an unpredictable reaction to the evidence.

SAVIDGE: So why might they be leaning this way?

SHARGEL: Lawyers -- lawyers have long thought that where a case might seem hopeless a bench trial would accomplish the following: that if a judge considered the evidence and find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, when it came time for the punishment phase, there would be some drop of sympathy here and that same judge who convicted the defendant might spare his life, in this case, the death penalty case. I don't buy it in this case.

SAVIDGE: How likely do you think the prospect of a change of venue could be and where do you go?

SHARGEL: Well, that's a very good question. I think you answered the question. This is not a case where if you removed it from Virginia to -- or from this county in Virginia to another county or even if you moved out of state, where would you go? I mean, the nation is keenly aware of what occurred during this killing spree and I don't think a change of venue would benefit.

SAVIDGE: Well, now you've obviously defended a number of high- profile cases. If you had the opportunity to work on this one, what would your defense be? Where would you focus?

SHARGEL: Well, the first question was are there any facts that might raise a reasonable doubt? I can't simply rely on what I've read in the press.

SAVIDGE: Right.

SHARGEL: As unlikely as that seems, that's the first thing that a defense lawyer would do.

The second question here, more focused on the case itself, is whether there's a psychiatric defense. Obviously, this is a very, very bizarre set of circumstances that led to these killings.

SAVIDGE: You mean like an insanity plea?

SHARGEL: Exactly, an insanity plea.

And the next thing that any lawyer, including the lawyers for John Muhammed right now would be thinking about is how can I spare his life? I mean, there are cases going back to the famous Leopold and Loeb case where Clarence Darrow argued before a judge that their lives should be spared in a very celebrated murder case back in the 1920s. And, indeed, their lives were spared in argument to a judge.

So, the defense lawyers would be thinking about what could we do to humanize the defendant to see if they can escape the death penalty.

SAVIDGE: Jerry, we have run out of time, but thanks for joining us. He's defended a number of people in very big cases. And it's good to see you. Thank you, sir.

SHARGEL: Nice to see you. Bye-bye.

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