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Feds deny thwarting sniper suspect's confession

An artist's sketch of John Allen Muhammad in federal court Tuesday in Greenbelt, Maryland
An artist's sketch of John Allen Muhammad in federal court Tuesday in Greenbelt, Maryland

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CNN's Kelli Arena says authorities deny reports John Allen Muhammad was close to confessing before federal agents cut interrogation short [October 30)
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CNN's David Mattingly talks to several people who met or talked to the sniper suspects before they were arrested. (October 30)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Justice Department officials Wednesday strongly disputed the contention by Maryland state authorities that the U.S. attorney in Baltimore had ordered an end to the interrogation of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, thus preventing a confession on the day he was arrested.

The officials' complaints about the Montgomery County, Maryland, interrogation were first reported in the The New York Times Wednesday.

One federal law enforcement source familiar with the questioning told CNN that ending the interrogation was an "unwarranted interruption."

While admitting 41-year-old Muhammad had yet to say anything of substance, the source said, "If their lips are moving, you keep them talking."

The Times quoted officials who said Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio had ordered Muhammad moved to federal custody, and initially charged before a U.S. magistrate judge in Baltimore. One of the officials claimed DiBiagio insisted he was under orders from the Justice Department and the White House.

DiBiagio called the allegations "false" and said he never mentioned White House involvement in the decision to place Muhammad in federal custody. The White House also denied it ordered a federal prosecutor to transfer the two sniper suspects into federal custody.

DiBiagio said White House officials were not involved in any decisions about where Muhammad and the other sniper suspect, 17-year-old John Lee Malvo, would be put into custody or where charges might be brought, DiBiagio said.

"There was no indication throughout the day that either of the individuals were yielding any useful information," DiBiagio said. "In fact, the juvenile was not speaking to officials at all."

A Justice Department spokesman in Washington said the questioning ended when Muhammad invoked his right to counsel, which is when, under the law, interrogation must stop.

"There was no order or directive from the U.S. attorney, and the Justice Department and the White House had absolutely nothing to do with it," the spokesman said.

DiBiagio said Maryland Assistant States Attorney John McCarthy informed him around 3 p.m. last Thursday -- some 12 hours after the two suspects were arrested at a rest stop where they were sleeping in their car -- that Muhammad had invoked his right to counsel, and that was when he stepped in to end the questioning.

The two men are suspected in the random shootings of 13 people in Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C. -- 10 of whom died -- in a three-week rampage that began October 2. Charges have been filed against one or both of them in all but two of the fatal shootings -- one in Washington and the other in Falls Church, Virginia.

Prosecutors are engaged in what appears to be a jurisdictional tug of war on where the first trial will be held.

The key issue is getting death penalty-eligible convictions against the two -- something that would be possible only in Virginia because of Malvo's age.

The Justice Department issued a 20-count criminal complaint against Muhammad Tuesday charging him with a variety of federal offenses that could result in a death sentence upon conviction.

It's believed that similar charges were filed against Malvo in a complaint kept under seal because he is a juvenile. He could not be sentenced to death in a federal case even if tried as an adult.

-- From CNN Justice Producer Terry Frieden, Correspondents Kelly Wallace and Art Harris, and Producer Kevin Bohn

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