ROCKVILLE, Md. – A growing number of officials said Sunday that the state of Maryland should defer prosecution of the two sniper suspects to another jurisdiction where the death penalty could be more easily applied.
A Justice Department official suggested Maryland should not be the first to try the case, and the top elected official in Maryland's Montgomery County, where six were slain, urged prosecutors to work together to choose the strongest venue.
John Allen Muhammad, 41, and teenager John Lee Malvo were to be charged on Monday in Virginia, where three of the killings took place. The suspects already face multiple murder charges in Maryland, and murder charges in Alabama unrelated to the sniper shootings. They also could be charged with federal extortion and murder counts that could bring the death penalty.
"They need to present a unified front to the public and say: 'Here's how we're going to handle this,' and wherever the case is strongest with the stiffest penalties, that's where they need to go," Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan told The Associated Press on Sunday. His comments were among the first from Maryland officials suggesting the possibility of another venue.
Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler told the AP on Sunday that he still believes his state should prosecute the case first, but "we're open to discussions with all the jurisdictions."
Gansler acknowledged that the toughest sentence Malvo could get in Maryland would be life without the possibility of parole, but argued that his state has the strongest case because it suffered the heaviest losses.
The Justice Department suggested Sunday it is unlikely Maryland will be the first jurisdiction to try the sniper suspects, who remain in federal custody on federal firearms and material witness warrants issued before their capture.
Maryland "comes in dead last" in terms of the strength of its law on the death penalty, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Virginia and Alabama may be more likely than Maryland to carry out executions. Maryland has put just three people to death, and all executions have been suspended under a moratorium imposed by Gov. Parris Glendening.
And a 17-year-old would be eligible for the death penalty in Virginia and Alabama but not in Maryland. Virginia also 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 New York Times and Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that the lead prosecutor in Fairfax County, where one victim was killed, suggested there is evidence that Malvo was the shooter.
The prosecutor, Commonwealth attorney Robert F. Horan, Jr., dismissed those reports late Sunday.
"What I said is that there's an equal possibility" for both suspects to have been the shooter, Horan told The AP.
Federal law enforcement authorities are reviewing possible charges relating to extortion and murder that might allow for all the shootings to be combined in a single case and would allow for the death penalty on conviction, the official said. Letters left behind in the sniper slayings demanded $10 million.
The Justice Department official also pointed to the possibility of a federal trial in Maryland. Under such a choice, "you have the benefit of being in the Maryland community" where most of the shootings occurred, said the official.
In Virginia, Spotsylvania and Prince William counties are expected to file capital murder charges against Muhammad on Monday covering two of the three killings in that state, a Justice Department source said on condition of anonymity.
Accessory or aiding and abetting counts are expected for Malvo, the Justice official said, while prosecutors consider the evidence for bringing a death-penalty case against him.
Spotsylvania prosecutor William Neely and Prince William prosecutor Paul Ebert did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, speaking on Fox News Sunday, said his state would be best positioned to prosecute because it can more easily apply the death penalty.
"You know, we have the death penalty for both parties. We can try this juvenile as an adult and subject him to the death penalty, and we can move quickly," he said.
There is no death penalty in the District of Columbia, where one person was killed.
Kilgore said that he had spoken with White House and Justice Department officials and that the federal government has been cooperative with Virginia. He said that means "no federal charges at least until we've filed our indictment and get our process going here in Virginia."
Virginia and Maryland authorities have not had the same working relationship, he said.
"We haven't been able to share a lot of information and receive a lot of information from the Maryland side," he said. "It's just not as much cooperation is going on as I believe ought to be going on."
Also Sunday, a man being held in Michigan as a witness in the case agreed to be moved to Maryland for questioning. Nathaniel O. Osbourne, 26, co-owner of the Chevrolet Caprice used by the sniper suspects, has been cooperating with investigators since his arrest Saturday. Officials say he is not a suspect in the attacks.
James Wyda, a court-appointed lawyer for Muhammad, said Sunday his client was not cooperating with investigators. Malvo's attorney could not be reached Sunday.
Gansler said on NBC's Meet the Press that his office believes both men fired shots during the spree.
Authorities said Sunday they believe everyone involved in the shootings that terrorized the Washington suburbs for three weeks has been caught. "We are confident the sniper shootings have ended," Gansler told Meet the Press.
The relief was evident during a Rockville church service near where two victims were killed. Monsignor Thomas Kane told parishioners at St. Patrick's Church that the shootings had showed them "evil at its worst," but that they saw "goodness at its best" from law enforcement.
"We were terrorized together and now we rejoice together," Kane said.