WASHINGTON – Beltway Sniper suspects John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo will be tried in Virginia for "brutal, random acts of murder," and prosecutors will be seeking the death penalty, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Thursday.
Ashcroft announced that Muhammad, 41, and Malvo, 17, will be tried separately in neighboring suburban counties. Both face capital murder and other charges.
Even as Ashcroft announced his decision, yet another crime was connected to the pair — a Sept. 21 killing in Atlanta. That brought to 18 the number of shootings linked so far to Muhammad and Malvo by police across the country. Thirteen people were killed.
Ashcroft said at a news conference that the strength of the evidence in the Virginia cases combined with the state's tough death penalty laws gave it the edge over Maryland or the federal system in bringing "swift and sure" justice in the sniper shootings.
There were 13 shootings during the three-week sniper spree in the Washington area. Ashcroft read off names of the 10 people killed, noting in each case something personal about the victim or the way they were killed to highlight the "brutal, random" nature of the crimes.
The people targeted were young and old, black and white, men and women. All were doing everyday things such as pumping gas, reading on a bench, buying groceries, mowing grass or vacuuming a minivan.
"It is appropriate, it is imperative, that the ultimate sanction be available for those who have committed these crimes," Ashcroft said.
Paul Ebert, prosecutor in Prince William County, where Muhammad will be tried, noted that Virginia's 86 executions since 1976 rank it second only to Texas. "The death penalty's reserved for the worst of the worst, and I think from the evidence ... these folks qualify," Ebert said.
Muhammad will be tried for the Oct. 9 slaying of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, of Gaithersburg, Md., a Vietnam veteran who was shot while pumping gas in Manassas, Va., shortly after leaving work.
Malvo will stand trial in Fairfax County for the Oct. 14 killing of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, 47, who was killed while loading packages into her car with her husband at a Home Depot in Falls Church, Va.
Ebert and Robert F. Horan Jr., the Fairfax County prosecutor, said it probably would be months before either trial begins. Both cases will go before grand juries after preliminary court hearings, they said.
Muhammad and Malvo were delivered Thursday from federal custody to Virginia authorities, with initial court appearances scheduled Friday morning.
Both are charged with capital murder in the two killings and under a new Virginia anti-terorrism law in which prosecutors need not prove which one pulled the trigger for both to get the death penalty if convicted. They also are charged under another law providing for capital punishment when more than one person is killed within three years.
Asked if there was evidence that Malvo pulled the trigger in the Fairfax case, Horan said he wouldn't comment on any specifics. "That's for the courtroom, and that's where we'll put it on," he said.
Federal extortion and firearms charges against the two were dismissed Thursday, although they could be reinstituted later.
The motive for the killing spree remains uncertain, but Muhammad's ex-wife, Mildred Muhammad, who lives in the Washington suburb of Clinton, Md., said that her former husband's chief purpose in coming to the area was to kill her.
"I'm sure he had me in his scope," she said in an interview with The Washington Post. "This was an elaborate plan to make this look like I was a victim so he could come in as the grieving father and take the children."
The two suspects have been in custody since their Oct. 24 arrest at a rest stop along Interstate 70 in Maryland. Police say they found in their car a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle linked to most of the Washington-area slayings and to September killings in Louisiana and Alabama.
A day after the arrests, Montgomery County, Md., prosecutor Doug Gansler filed the first murder charges, angering federal officials who wanted a collective deliberation about where to try the cases first.
Gansler argued that Maryland deserved the trials because six people were killed there, the most of any area. But federal officials said Maryland's death penalty laws were too weak and its record of carrying out capital punishment was ineffective. Maryland also does not allow for the execution of minors.
Gansler was not among the state and local officials who appeared Thursday at the news conference with Ashcroft, although Montgomery County's chief executive, Doug Duncan, and Police Chief Charles Moose attended.
Murder charges also have been brought against Muhammad and Malvo for the Sept. 21 killing of liquor store clerk Claudine Parker, 42, in Montgomery, Ala., and the Sept. 23 slaying of Hong Im Ballenger, 45, outside her beauty supply store in Baton Rouge, La.
They also are suspected of in a pair of robberies in Prince George's County, Md., outside Washington, in which two men were shot and wounded.
On Thursday, police in Atlanta said the Sept. 21 murder of Million Waldemariam, 41, could be connected to the pair because ballistics evidence matched a .22-caliber handgun recovered near the Alabama killing. Waldemariam, an Ethiopian immigrant, was killed outside the Atlanta liquor store where he worked.
Atlanta is about 150 miles from Montgomery, where Parker was killed the same day.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.