With another set of indictments returned against the sniper suspects, Attorney General John Ashcroft said officials are weighing who has the best evidence to deliver the "ultimate sanction" — death.
A Virginia prosecutor says he is satisfied he has the evidence to immediately try John Allen Muhammad and 17-year-old John Lee Malvo. The two were charged with murder Wednesday in the Oct. 14 slaying of an FBI analyst in Fairfax County.
Unlike other prosecutors, Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said he waited to bring charges until he saw the evidence in the case. He said he acted now "because I was satisfied I had enough evidence to go to trial."
Muhammad and Malvo have been accused of shooting 17 people, killing 12 and wounding five, in Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia, Washington state and Washington, D.C.
In Fairfax County, each suspect was charged with two counts of capital murder and one count of use of a firearm in a felony in the shooting of Linda Franklin in the parking deck of a Home Depot store. Muhammad was indicted by a grand jury; Malvo was charged in a petition from juvenile court, authorities said.
Muhammad and Malvo were charged under two Virginia statutes: a new post-Sept. 11 terrorism law and a state law allowing capital punishment for the killing of more than one person within three years. Both charges carry the death penalty. Only the triggerman could get the death penalty under the multiple murder statute; both could receive it under the terrorism law.
Horan declined to discuss specific evidence in the case. He has said previously that there is evidence that points to both suspects as the triggerman.
While federal prosecutors have yet to say which jurisdiction will try the pair first, a decision may hinge on where a death sentence can be obtained with the most ease.
Ashcroft said the decision on which jurisdiction will conduct the first trial will be made after a "fact-driven analysis" of where prosecutors have the best evidence and the best law to permit the death penalty to apply if the suspects are convicted.
"I think it's well-understood on my part that I believe appropriate penalties for the kinds of atrocities that have been committed to include the ultimate sanction of the death penalty," Ashcroft told reporters Wednesday.
Horan said he will respect Ashcroft's decision about who prosecutes first, but if the attorney general defers to the states, Virginia should go first because it has a strong death penalty statute.
"We have death penalty statue that has stood the test of time," Horan said.
Horan rejected the idea that prosecutors have been bickering over who will try the snipers first. He called it "absolute nonsense."
Horan said if the case is sent to Virginia, he'll meet with the prosecutors in Prince William and Spotsylvania counties, where fatal sniper shootings also took place, to decide who will prosecute first based on the best evidence.
Ashcroft said he has met twice with FBI Director Robert Mueller to discuss evidence in the case and is working closely with state investigators in reaching his decision.
"This is a continuing investigation. I think it's fair to say that it is nationwide," Ashcroft said. "We're not ruling out the possibility of other situations that might be related to this set of circumstances."
As for the timing of a decision, Ashcroft said it would be "with as much dispatch as reason and prudence will allow" but he would not be more specific.
Federal prosecutors earlier filed charges against Muhammad under weapons and extortion laws that could bring the death penalty. Federal charges have also apparently been brought against Malvo, but authorities will not say so because he is a juvenile.