Judge In Sniper Trial Steps Aside

Convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad is escorted into the Virginia Beach Circuit Court in Virginia Beach, Va., Tuesday Nov. 18, 2003. The second day of the penalty phase of the trial is underway.
The judge presiding over the second prosecution of convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad recused himself from the case Tuesday after prosecutors claimed the judge improperly conducted his own investigation into whether Muhammad had been denied a speedy trial.

Circuit Court Judge Jonathan C. Thacher, in a letter to attorneys made public Tuesday, said he is recusing himself even though he believes he did nothing wrong.

"My concerns and obligations are and always have been the orderly administration of justice," as well as following the Constitution and state laws, Thacher wrote. "As the trial judge I have taken no action that is inconsistent with this position."

But Thacher said he needed to step aside because "the focus has been diverted away from the legal issues in this case, and needs to be redirected to the prosecution of Mr. Muhammad."

"The judge's departure is a big deal in the short-term, but it won't have a huge impact on the outcome of the trial," reports CBS News Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen. "And it likely won't delay the start of the trial which still has not yet been set."

Prosecutors sought Thacher's recusal, saying he compromised his impartiality on a Sept. 7 visit to the Prince William jail to retrieve paperwork relevant to Muhammad's claim that he has been denied the right to a speedy trial. Prosecutors say Thacher also discussed the issue with jail personnel who could be called to testify on the issue.

Defense lawyers wanted to keep Thacher on the case and said prosecutors were to blame for providing inaccurate information to the judge and refusing to provide documents the judge had requested leaving Thacher no choice but to retrieve them himself.

"Even with the new judge, the underlying issue that prompted all of this — whether Muhammad's speedy trial rights have been violated — doesn't go away," says Cohen. "Even if the new judge allows the case to proceed to trial and Muhammad is convicted, this ultimately will be resolved by the appellate courts."