Sniper suspects charged in Virginia
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Three Virginia counties Monday joined one in Maryland in filing murder and attempted murder charges against sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo, and the federal government may weigh in with its case as early as Tuesday.
All three Virginia counties added charges that include terrorism.
Muhammad, a 41-year-old apparently homeless drifter, and the Jamaican-born Malvo, 17, were arrested while asleep in their car at a highway rest stop in Maryland last Thursday in the climax of a manhunt for the gunmen who killed 10 people and wounded three others in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia
The big issue is which jurisdiction will get to try the two men first, and a key factor is how certain a death sentence might be upon conviction. (Charges by jurisdiction)
Virginia, where separate charges were filed Monday in Spotsylvania, Hanover and Prince William counties, has executed 86 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 -- second only to Texas.
Maryland has executed three people in that time and is under a moratorium on executions in the state while the death penalty is being studied. Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening has said the moratorium would be lifted for this case.
Muhammad, also known as John Allen Williams, and Malvo were charged Friday with six counts of first degree murder in Montgomery County, Maryland, where the sniper shootings began October 2. But Malvo is too young to receive the death penalty in the state, with or without its moratorium; he turns 18 in February. (Muhammad profile)
The two men also were charged with murder in Alabama in connection with a shooting several days before the sniper rampage. The case was unrelated to the sniper case but provided clues that led to the suspects' arrest. (Full story)
Sources familiar with private talks in the case indicated Virginia prosecutors can make a strong case for putting the men on trial because of their experience in death penalty cases, and because state law allows for capital punishment of 17-year-olds. (Malvo profile)
Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore said that since 2000 his state has executed four people for crimes committed as a juvenile. "We say that it makes no difference to a victim whether the assailant was 17 years old or 18 years old," Kilgore told CNN.
Justice Department officials appear close to a final decision on what federal charges will be brought, and sources indicated an announcement could be made as early as Tuesday.
Federal prosecutors were said to be focused on a combination of federal firearms and extortion charges that taken together would allow for a death penalty for Muhammad if he is convicted. The extortion charge would stem from the $10 million demanded in one of the notes left by the sniper.
Because the suspects are already in federal custody in Baltimore on preliminary charges, the Justice Department is in a position to decide who will be allowed to prosecute the suspected snipers first.
Kilgore said the number of Maryland victims should not be the deciding factor about where Muhammad and Malvo are prosecuted.
"I think we should all get together and decide, based on judicial economy, which state can proceed the quickest, which state has a track record in death penalty cases, and which state's death penalty statutes have been tested and tried in the appellate courts," he said.
Muhammad was indicted in Spotsylvania County on charges of capital murder and committing an act of terrorism in the October 11 shooting death of Philadelphia businessman Kenneth Bridges near Fredericksburg and the October 4 wounding of a woman in Fredericksburg.
Prosecutors brought the same charges against Malvo in juvenile court.
In Hanover County, Muhammad was indicted on charges of attempted capital murder, conspiracy, attempted murder after committing a terrorist act and firearms violations in the shooting of a 37-year-old Melbourne, Florida, man critically wounded October 19 outside a Ponderosa restaurant in Ashland, north of Richmond.
Identical charges were brought against Malvo in juvenile court.
A Prince William County grand jury indicted Muhammad on two capital charges of murder and murder while committing an act of terrorism in the October 9 shooting death of Dean Harold Myers in Manassas. Other charges were murder conspiracy and use of a firearm. Similar charges were being brought against Malvo in juvenile court.
The county's commonwealth attorney, Paul Ebert, said the double capital murder counts for one death were brought under a new law enacted after the September 11 attacks.
On the issue of which jurisdiction would put the men on trial first, Ebert said:
"We have a statute in Virginia which would prohibit us from prosecuting if the federal government would indict for the same act which is the basis for our indictment. That was one reason I think that all the jurisdictions that did indict acted today rather hastily, even though the investigation is ongoing."
Ebert said he believes Virginia "is in the best position" to obtain a death penalty conviction. And although state law holds that only the triggerman is eligible for capital punishment in a particular crime, the new terrorism act would allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty against both defendants.
"Under the terrorism act," Ebert said, "there is explicit exemption for the person who is the non-shooter if that person is aiding and abetting and ordering the triggerman to commit the crime."