Virginia charges sniper suspects; jurisdictional debate continues

W By Shannon McCaffrey

wASHINGTON (KRT) – Virginia prosecutors filed the state’s first murder charges against the sniper suspects on Monday as jockeying intensified over who will take charge of the high-profile case.

Officials in Montgomery County, Md., rushed late last week to be the first into court, filing six counts of murder against John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo. The two are suspected of killing 10 and wounding three in a three-week rampage through six counties and the District of Columbia that terrified the nation’s capital and surrounding area.

Muhammad, 41, and Malvo, 17, are in federal custody, which means Attorney General John Ashcroft ultimately will determine which jurisdiction controls the case. The decision probably will turn on which jurisdiction has the toughest record in imposing the death penalty, one federal law enforcement official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official said Monday it is “highly unlikely” the case would go to Montgomery County – even though most of the fatalities occurred there – because of Maryland’s seeming ambivalence about capital punishment.

Maryland has executed three people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and Maryland is one of two states with a moratorium on executions. Gov. Parris Glendening said in May there would be no more executions until a study is completed on the role racial bias plays in the state’s application of the death penalty.

Sandra O’Connor, state’s attorney in Baltimore County, where nine of the state’s 13 death row inmates were prosecuted, said Maryland’s capital punishment statute does not even apply in the sniper case. She said the law covers murders that were committed at the same time but not serial murders, according to a recent ruling by the state’s highest court.

“The statute is ridiculous,” O’Connor said.

Virginia has executed 86 people since 1976, more than any state except Texas. And unlike Maryland, which bans execution of juvenile killers, Virginia allows it for those younger than 18 who commit a capital crime. Federal death-penalty law also does not provide for the execution of juvenile offenders, so Malvo could face death only in Virginia courts.

In Virginia on Monday, Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney Robert Horan said Malvo may have fired the single shot that killed FBI employee Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot on Oct. 14.

In Spotsylvania County, Va., where two of the shootings occurred, Muhammad and Malvo were charged Monday with killing 53-year-old Kenneth Bridges of Philadelphia as he gassed up his car on Oct. 11, and with wounding a woman on Oct. 4. The woman has not been identified.

Muhammad, a former Army soldier, was indicted on charges of capital murder, conspiracy to commit capital murder, attempted capital murder, aggravated malicious wounding and use of a firearm in a felony. Malvo was charged with the same offenses in juvenile court. Authorities will seek to have his case transferred to adult court later this week.

Hanover County. Va., prosecutors also indicted Muhammad on seven counts for shooting and critically wounding a man as he left a Ponderosa Steakhouse in the town of Ashland with his wife on Oct. 19. Malvo was charged as a juvenile, but those charges also could be transferred.

Later Monday, in Prince William County, Va., a grand jury charged Muhammad and Malvo with capital murder and conspiracy to commit murder in connection with an Oct. 9 shooting in the city of Manassas. The charges were filed under a new post-Sept. 11 terrorism law that allows both men to face the death penalty, even the one who did not pull the trigger.

In addition, the pair has been charged in Alabama with a killing during a Sept. 21 robbery in Montgomery.

Federal law enforcement officials are concerned that victims might have to endure multiple trials because of the number of jurisdictions seeking to try the pair. They have not ruled out combining the shootings into a single federal case for extortion and murder, one official said. The extortion charge could arise because the sniper left behind a letter at the Ashland shooting scene demanding $10 million.

Abraham Dash, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School and former lawyer in the Justice Department’s criminal division, said it is possible that federal authorities could also charge the two under the Patriot Act if their motive turns out to have been driven by a hatred of Americans. The Patriot Act was passed after Sept. 11, 2001, to combat terrorism.

Legal experts say prosecutors may be competing to run the first trial because the attendant publicity could be “a career maker” for them.

“Whoever gets to go first gets the biggest bang out of it. After that, interest will fall off,” said University of Virginia Law School professor Earl Dudley.