Feds Deny They Blocked Local Questioning of Sniper Suspects

New federal weapons and extortion charges against sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad added to the debate over which jurisdiction will be the first to prosecute him and his alleged partner in the attacks.

Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, already are charged with murder in Maryland and Virginia in the attacks that left 10 people dead and three others critically wounded. They are also charged with an Alabama slaying last month and are suspected in a February killing in Washington state.

Both have been in federal custody since shortly after their arrests.

A senior Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, rejected any notion that Muhammad or Malvo appeared ready to confess while local police had them in custody in Rockville, Md.

The official said that both suspects immediately invoked their right not to speak to interrogators outside the presence of an attorney and that Malvo spoke only to say he was hungry or to demand: "Leave me alone so I can get something to eat."

Malvo would not even say he was in the car with Muhammad when the two were captured at a Maryland rest stop, the official said.

The federal charges could take precedence, though Attorney General John Ashcroft said negotiations are continuing over where the two men will first stand trial.

Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, who filed six murder charges against the two on Friday, said Montgomery County, which had the most victims and was the center of the investigation, has the moral and emotional authority to try the case first.

Gansler said federalization of the trials would disappoint county residents and the victims' relatives.

"Seven of our citizens were murdered, we were paralyzed for three weeks. These victims' families are going to potentially be denied their day in court, that's my biggest problem with it," he said. Six people were killed in Montgomery County and a county resident was killed in Manassas, Va.

Federal prosecutors charged Muhammad under the Hobbs Act, a 1946 union corruption law the government uses against people accused of trying to extort money or disrupt interstate commerce. The charge was based on a note, found at the scene of one of the shootings, demanding $10 million.

However, Justice Department officials said prosecutors believe the firearms charges would make the best death penalty case at this point because they have the best evidence — a weapon linked to the killings.

"I believe the ultimate sanction ought to be available here," Ashcroft said, calling the sniper slayings "an atrocity."

Former Maryland U.S. Attorney Jervis Finney said the case is stronger in federal court because it combines crimes committed across the different jurisdictions. He said federal prosecutors made a statement by filing charges.

"Normally it means that the federal government intends to go first," he said.

But Gansler argued the federal case is weaker than the state cases, which directly charge the suspects with first-degree murder. He said prosecutors will have a hard time proving extortion was the primary motive for the shooting spree.

"There are very few people investigating this case, if any, who truly believe that extortion was the motive for these 14 shootings," he said.

Malvo was not charged in the 20-count federal criminal complaint, but he is identified as a John Doe in the supporting affidavit that describes some of the prosecution's evidence for the first time.

A judge must agree that Malvo can stand trial as an adult before he can be identified. The federal death penalty does not apply to juveniles, but Malvo could face the death penalty if he is convicted in Virginia or Alabama.

The complaint names only seven victims — six killed in Montgomery County and a man gunned down in Washington, D.C.

A senior Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Virginia cases were omitted because of that state's laws regarding double jeopardy — being tried twice for the same crime. Federal charges covering those cases could be added later, the official said.

During an appearance in federal court here, Muhammad said "Yes, sir" when asked if he understood the counts against him. Another hearing was set for Nov. 5.

Outside the courthouse, federal public defender Jim Wyda said Muhammad has never been convicted of any other crimes, is innocent until proven guilty and has the right to a fair trial.

"What we're asking the public to do is respect that process. Mr. Muhammad needs it very badly," Wyda said. "This is a situation with so much emotion and so much passion, that it breeds the chance for errors, for mistakes."

The complaint charges Muhammad with affecting interstate commerce by extortion and threats of physical violence, interstate transportation in aid of racketeering, firing a gun near a school and other counts.

The accompanying affidavit details items found in a car that Muhammad and Malvo were sleeping in when they were arrested last week at a Maryland rest stop.

The items include a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle police linked to most of the shootings and a glove stuck in a hole in the trunk. Authorities believe the sniper shot victims through the hole while lying in the trunk.

The glove matches one found at the scene of the Oct. 22 killing of a Maryland bus driver, according to the affidavit.

Also found was a global positioning system device, a pair of two-way radios, a laptop computer and a wallet with several driver's licenses bearing Muhammad's photo but with different names.

Citing unidentified law enforcement officials, the Seattle Times reported Wednesday that as many as 340 guns are unaccounted for at the Tacoma, Wash. gun shop that was the source of the rifle used in the shootings.

According to the paper, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms began an audit of the store's records on Friday after federal agents failed to find a record of sale for the .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle used in the slayings.

In a televised interview Tuesday, Muhammad's first wife and his 20-year-old son said they believe Muhammad might deserve to die.

"If he sits in a car and shot innocent people, if they find him guilty for that, yes," said Carol Williams.

Said Lindbergh Williams: "Even though he is my father, in my eyes, you reap what you sow. If you did it — you was man to enough to do it, you are man enough to pay the consequences."