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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Virginia to Try Snipers; Ashcroft Holds Press Conference

Aired November 7, 2002 - 15:51   ET

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

ARTHEL NEVILLE, CNN ANCHOR: I have to go ahead and toss to the Justice Department, where that Ashcroft news conference is getting underway. We're going to take a listen to see what Mr. Ashcroft has to say.
JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: For 23 days in October our communities lived in fear. Killers stalked the national capital area. Ten innocent people lost their lives in brutal, random acts of murder.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, FBI analyst Linda Franklin was loading packages into her car when she was felled by a single bullet to her head.

In Prince William County, Vietnam veteran Dean Harold Meyers was murdered as he pumped gas into his car.

James T. Martin was killed buying groceries for his church.

Kenneth Bridges stopped for gas -- murdered.

James "Sonny" Buchanan struck by a bullet in the chest mowing the lawn.

Sarah Ramos, wife, mother, shot reading peacefully on a bench.

On his 25th wedding anniversary, Premkumar Walekar was shot, killed, while filling his car with gas.

Pascal Charlot's life ended violently on a Washington, D.C., street.

Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera's life was taken when she stopped to vacuum her car.

And Conrad Johnson was shot on the steps of his bus as he prepared to serve the public for his early morning shift.

To secure justice for these victims, the Department of Justice has conducted a deliberative, fact-based review of these crimes and the appropriate penalties warranted.

This afternoon, after consulting with law enforcement authorities, I am announcing the jurisdictions that will first prosecute the individuals charged with the Washington-area sniper shootings.

I have instructed the U.S. Marshals Service to transfer custody of John Allen Muhammad to Prince William County, Virginia, where he has been indicted for capital murder, conspiracy to commit murder and using a firearm in the commission of murder. If convicted of these crimes with which he is charged, Muhammad could face the death penalty.

I have also instructed the Marshals Service to transfer custody of a juvenile to Fairfax County, Virginia, where he has been charged with capital murder and using a firearm in the commission of murder. If convicted as an adult, the juvenile could face the death penalty.

Our decisions are based on a number of considerations. We have worked with all the affected jurisdictions in this case. We believe that the first prosecutions should occur in those jurisdictions that provide the best law, the best facts and the best range of available penalties.

Innocent victims from Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Alabama and Louisiana have paid the ultimate price.

It is appropriate, it is imperative that the ultimate sanction be available for those who have committed these crimes.

In addition, the choice of these jurisdictions reflects the Justice Department's trust in the experience, ability and integrity of the state prosecutors who will try these cases.

Commonwealth Attorneys Paul Ebert of Prince William County and Robert Horan of Fairfax County are here with us today. They are tough, seasoned and highly respected prosecutors whose offices have excellent records in prosecution of violent crime. We have every confidence in their ability to bring about justice that is swift and sure and commensurate with the atrocities charged in this matter.

Since the arrests of Muhammad and the juvenile two weeks ago, the federal investigation into this shooting spree has continued to expand rapidly. We are moving forward aggressively with a multiple-state investigation that remains active, ongoing and evolving. We will continue to work with federal, state and local officials to gather evidence and follow facts wherever they lead to determine the full extent of the criminal activity.

I'm grateful to all of the individuals who are responsible for the investigation of these tragedies and for this prosecution. Many of the individuals are here with me today.

I thank the members of the sniper task force for their outstanding dedication and hard work.

In particular, I thank Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose. The chief and I have had the opportunity to confer on numerous occasions on the telephone. I have learned from the chief as he has spoken to America and to you in the media, and I think he sets an example for the way in which collaborative, cooperative investigations can take place for the benefit of the community.

I'm delighted that FBI Special Agent in Charge Gary Bald and ATF Special Agent in Charge Mike Bouchard and all of those who serve with them are available for us to thank today as well.

I thank Virginia law enforcement officials, including the Virginia attorney general, Jerry Kilgore; Fairfax County Police Chief Thomas Manger; and Prince William Police Chief Charles Deane.

In addition, we are pleased to have Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan join us today.

Thanks are also due to Tom DiBiagio, the United States attorney for the District of Maryland; to Paul McNulty, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia; and Roscoe Howard, United States attorney for the District of Columbia. I commend each of them for exercising impeccable judgment and responsible leadership in this case.

Of course, I want to thank Larry Thompson, the deputy attorney general, for his wise counsel and excellent leadership on this issue.

Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff stands with us today as the individual who leads the Criminal Division of the main Justice effort here in Washington. He is always of invaluable assistance, counsel, advice and guidance.

And finally, I extend my appreciation to the state and local law enforcement authorities in other parts of the nation, as well as federal officials in other parts of the nation and in other agencies, for their hard work and cooperation in putting together and assembling and continuing to assemble pieces in this nationwide investigation, which is ongoing.

I thank you. And now I'd be available to take a question or two.

QUESTION: Do you expect these two cases to proceed simultaneously? And can you discuss the status of Mr. Malvo and when he will be judged an adult in Fairfax County, when will he go through that proceeding?

ASHCROFT: I'm not able to indicate the timing, whether or not there will be a simultaneous -- it would be, I think, unusual to be able to have cases timed with some exact, sort of, simultaneity. Is that a word?

(LAUGHTER)

ASHCROFT: Try that one.

And I won't make any remarks regarding the individual charged in addition to Mr. Muhammad.

QUESTION: I was wondering if you can comment on the Atlanta connection. Apparently, there was a shooting in Atlanta that you are now connecting to the snipers -- sniper suspects, as you say.

ASHCROFT: As I've indicated, this is an ongoing investigation. And all across America, from literally sea to shining sea, law enforcement officials have contributed and are contributing not only information which might shed a light on things that happened here, but are developing information that may be related. We will work aggressively to cooperate with those investigations to learn all that should be learned. And if, in any way, those investigations should affect the proceedings here, obviously, we'll take that into consideration.

QUESTION: With so many deaths in Maryland -- so many more in Maryland than in any other place, why not have the prosecutions begin there? And if you believe that there is deficiency in the death penalty law in Maryland, can you spell out what those problems are?

I mean, many residents of Maryland might take some comfort in seeing that the case will be handled in Virginia, but they would feel particularly pleased if they knew that the prosecutions were going to happen in their own state.

ASHCROFT: Well, let me just say, our decisions were based on a number of considerations and we've worked with all the affected jurisdictions in filing the case. And we believe that the first prosecutions should occur where we have the best law, the best facts and the best range of available penalties.

In making those judgments, and collaborating with the excellent team that cooperated to assemble the evidence, I have come to the conclusion that the best place to have the first prosecutions are the places that we announced.

I believe that the citizens of all affected jurisdictions will be encouraged to see us move aggressively on these criteria, and that they will be pleased if we are successful in our cooperative effort at prosecution as we have been in the effort to investigate this matter.

QUESTION: General, can you give us any information about how the decision was made specifically that the juvenile would be tried in Fairfax, the adult in Prince William? Are there facts that are very specific to each incident in the case of each suspect?

ASHCROFT: Let me just indicate that we did look at each case individually, and obviously the criterion that I mentioned that weighed the best law, the best facts and the best range of available penalties was a criterion applied to both cases.

QUESTION: Does the fact that you're trying the juvenile in Fairfax County mean that you believe he was the shooter in that case?

ASHCROFT: I'm not in a position to make additional comments about the facts of the case.

I should -- I want to correct just one item. I am not trying this case. The Justice Department is not trying this case. We are asking that the first prosecution be brought by the Virginia prospector there -- the local prosecutor.

QUESTION: General, can you tell us -- can you get maybe Mr. Horan to explain why you all that you all think that the juvenile is better tried in Fairfax? ASHCROFT: I'll be happy to have -- you interrogate him. I'm not going to make any promises about he would choose to tell you.

Mr. Prosecutor?

QUESTION: The question: Why did you (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in your county?

ROBERT HORAN, COMMONWEALTH'S ATTORNEY, FAIRFAX COUNTY: Well, hopefully these cases are totally evidence-driven, and the decision to send it to Fairfax County is evidence-driven.

And I'm very grateful that the attorney general thought our case and our position was the place to start.

QUESTION: Can you be more specific?

HORAN: No.

(LAUGHTER)

HORAN: We are now in what I call the fair trial free press rules. And under those rules I'm not at liberty to discuss the evidence with anybody. That's for the courtroom, and that's where we'll put it on.

QUESTION: General, can you just explain to us and to everyone how it is that the attorney general of the United States is the person who makes the decision on where state and local prosecutions and the sequence -- how that comes into being? Is it unusual?

ASHCROFT: Well, this is an unusual case, and we hope that it's, as a matter of fact, unique. We don't want this ever to happen again. We would prefer never to have to deal with this kind of an atrocity and tragedy again.

And because there were a variety of jurisdictions and because there were federal charges and because the individuals in federal custody, it became an opportunity for me to work collaboratively and cooperatively with the interested jurisdictions to make a decision about where best first to prosecute these individuals.

That's the kind of decision that we reached. I believe we reached it with that kind of same cooperation that was successful in the investigation.

QUESTION: If I can ask prosecutors Ebert and Horan if, in seeking the death penalty, and they have to prove multiple murders in a period of time, if they can use evidence from shootings outside their jurisdictions, including Maryland and the District of Columbia, in seeking the death penalty, or is that a double jeopardy problem which precludes future trials?

HORAN: It's not a double jeopardy problem. We can use evidence of homicides committed in other jurisdiction, because under the Virginia statute we aren't trying those other crimes, we're using those other crimes to elevate our crime into the capital murder section.

QUESTION: Mr. Ebert, while you're there could you tell us how you plan to proceed, what time frame and resources you plan to devote to this?

PAUL EBERT, COMMONWEALTH'S ATTORNEY, PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY: Well, we'll proceed as quickly as possible. These are very serious cases and, of course, we will have the defendant before the court probably tomorrow morning, at least forthwith, and a preliminary date will be set.

So we intend to go forward as quickly as possible. And from my experience it'll take some time before these cases go to trial.

QUESTION: Some of the death penalty experts have said that there's been so many executions in Virginia because of inadequate counsel. What is the system in Virginia to make sure the two suspects are given adequate defense counsel?

EBERT: Well, I don't agree with that statement. I think that everybody in Virginia that I'm aware with has had a fair trial. Virginia's been very aggressive in its prosecution.

We are a jurisdiction that is -- I guess, has had the second most executions, which is a rather dubious distinction, but nevertheless it's cases like this that, in my judgment, call for the death penalty.

The death penalty's reserved for the worst of the worst. And I think from the evidence that all of you are aware of over the last month or so these folks qualify.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) thrown out?

(UNKNOWN): We're not going to go there.

(LAUGHTER)

(UNKNOWN): Thank you all very much. Thank you.

WOODRUFF: We have been listening to Attorney General John Ashcroft with an array of attorneys, U.S. attorneys behind him.

Essentially, the important announcement is that the two sniper suspects, John Lee Malvo and John Allen Muhammad will be tried in the state of Virginia, which does have the death penalty as an option.

Malvo will be tried in Fairfax County, where one of the murders occurred. Muhammad will be tried in Prince William County, where another of the shootings, the murders, occurred.

With me now, CNN Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin. Jeffrey, is it clear why the Justice Department has decided to do this? We heard the attorney general say they think the -- the case, they believe, is the strongest in these jurisdictions.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think you have to separate -- separate out two questions. Why are they doing it in Virginia? I think it is absolutely clear. This is a Justice Department and an attorney general who are deeply committed to the death penalty as a form of punishment.

This is by far the easier place to get it than in Maryland, and that's why they're going to -- and that's why they're going to Virginia. I think that's clear. As for why they're going to the two different jurisdictions and why they are being tried separately, I think that is somewhat a mystery at this point, and probably relates to the evidence in those cases.

After all, one of the questions that I don't think has been answered publicly at this point, who was the trigger man in each of these murders. I think one reason why they could be tried in these two jurisdictions is that there is evidence that Muhammad pulled the trigger in Fairfax, and Malvo in Prince William. I'm sorry -- I think it's vice versa. Malvo in...

WOODRUFF: Malvo in Fairfax.

TOOBIN: Malvo in Fairfax and Muhammad in Prince William. That will be interesting to see if prosecutors come forward with evidence as to who the trigger man was in those two jurisdictions.

WOODRUFF: Well, does this say to you that they think they are able to connect the man to the crime in that location?

TOOBIN: It really does, because I can't think of any other reason to do it that way. An alternative approach, frankly, the one that I thought would be used, is try them both together in each jurisdiction, because under Virginia law, you don't have to be the trigger man in order to be convicted or to get the death penalty. You can be convicted under a felony murder or conspiracy theory, and still get the death penalty. Here apparently, and the prosecutors and the attorney general didn't answer it clear -- didn't answer it at all, but it does appear that they are trying each sniper -- each alleged sniper in the jurisdiction where they believe he pulled the trigger.

WOODRUFF: All right. Jeffrey Toobin talking with us, and we should say that this information coming from the Justice Department on the same day that the two sniper suspects have been linked to yet another shooting in Atlanta, this one taking place on September 21 -- September 21, which was a matter of, maybe, two weeks before the shootings in the Washington area started.

We're going to take a short break, "INSIDE POLITICS" right after that.

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