Published October 29, 2002
ROCKVILLE, Md. – As federal and state officials wrangled over who would get first crack at prosecuting the sniper suspects, Maryland authorities said Friday they would charge each with six counts of first-degree murder and seek the death penalty against John Muhammad.
Earlier in the day, Alabama officials filed murder charges against the men for the fatal shooting of a woman dn to seek the death penalty.
State's Attorney Douglas Gansler said prosecutors in Maryland — where the majority of deadly shootings took place — will not pursue a death sentence for his Muhammad's alleged accomplice, John Lee Malvo, if his age is confirmed. Malvo, believed to be 17, would be too young to be eligible for the death penalty under Maryland law, which sets a minimum age of 18.
"Obviously we have different views in Maryland and Virginia on whether to apply the death penalty to a juvenile," Gansler said. "We don't feel the death penalty is appropriate for juveniles."
The string of sniper attacks that began Oct. 2 left 10 people dead, including six in Maryland, three in Virginia and one in Washington, D.C. Three others were wounded.
Meanwhile, a material witness warrant was issued for a New Jersey man who co-owned a car with Muhammad that authorities say was used in the sniper shootings. Authorities have not been able to find Nathanel O. Osbourne, 26, FBI spokeswoman Linda Vizi said in Philadelphia.
The FBI stressed that Osbourne was not a subject of the investigation in the shootings. A federal judge sealed the documents pertaining to the warrant, Vizi said.
Gansler announced the murder charges after a meeting with prosecutors from jurisdictions where the killings took place. He said each of the jurisdictions has a vital interest in the case, but Montgomery County was the "community most affected and most impacted by the shootings."
But Gansler acknowledged no agreement was reached at the meeting as to which jurisdiction would take precedence, saying "it's a continuing dialogue."
Justice Department officials are still weighing whether to bring their own charges or allow the states to handle the prosecutions. The overriding concern among federal officials is to ensure their legal options include the death penalty.
One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said federal prosecutors could use the Hobbs Act, which allows the government to seek the death penalty in murders where killers try to extort money. Police sources have said that one letter left behind in the sniper cases demanded $10 million.
The official noted that both suspects will remain in U.S. custody, giving the federal government an advantage if it decides to assert jurisdiction.
Malvo tried to escape from an interrogation room sometime after his capture by going through a panel in the ceiling, but investigators were able to pull him back down, a law enforcement source told The Associated Press; it was not known where he was being held. Muhammad was being held in a maximum-security state prison in Baltimore, according to the Maryland Division of Correction.
In Montgomery, Ala., Police Chief John Wilson said investigators believe it was Muhammad, an Army Gulf War veteran, who fired the shots during the September liquor store robbery there.
"We want to send a very strong message to not only this community and this state but the country that this is not the kind of conduct, this is not what we expect of civilized society," Wilson said. "We're going to make an example of somebody."
Muhammad, 41, and Malvo were arrested at a Maryland rest stop on Thursday. Investigators said a rifle found in their car has been linked to 11 of the shootings; ballistics tests from two others were inconclusive.
"I think the general consensus is that the case will be tried first in Montgomery County," Gansler said before meeting with his counterparts Friday. "We have the best evidence in the case. Also, the investigation was run out of Montgomery County."
The men could still be prosecuted later in Virginia and the other jurisdictions. Virginia and Alabama may be more likely than Maryland to actually carry out executions.
Virginia has executed 86 people since capital punishment was reinstated in the United States in 1976 — more than any state but Texas. In the same period, Alabama has executed 23. Maryland has put just three people to death, and all executions have been suspended under a moratorium imposed in May by Gov. Parris Glendening, who leaves office in January.
The states' laws also differ in the criteria for execution. A 17-year-old would be eligible for the death penalty in Virginia and Alabama but not in Maryland.
Virginia has more avenues than Maryland for seeking the death penalty, including a new post-Sept. 11 provision that allows for execution when the killer has "intent to intimidate the civilian population at large."
The U.S. attorney in Baltimore, Thomas DiBiagio, has declined to comment on the possibility of federal prosecution.
Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore appealed directly to the White House and Attorney General John Ashcroft for federal prosecutors to step aside and let Virginia and Maryland prosecute the two suspects. Kilgore noted his state's track record of executing murder defendants.