Best law, best facts, best range of penalties

The federal government has stepped into the tussle over which state should get first crack at the Washington area sniper suspects, deciding Virginia had the “best law, the best facts, and the best range of availability penalties.”

Attorney General John Ashcroft sent John Allen Muhammad (41) and John Lee Malvo (17) to stand trial on Friday in two different Virginia jurisdictions on murder charges that could bring the death penalty.

Even as Ashcroft announced his decision, yet another crime was allegedly connected to the pair—a September 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 he sent the pair to Virginia in part because its laws allow the best opportunities to obtain the death penalty: the state allows execution of 17-year-olds and has put to death 86 people since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, more than any state except Texas.

“It is appropriate—it is imperative—that the ultimate sanction be available for those convicted of these crimes,” Ashcroft said on Thursday.
“We believe that the first prosecutions should occur in those jurisdictions that provide the best law, the best facts, and the best range of availability penalties.”

Muhammad was scheduled to make an initial appearance on Friday in Prince William Circuit Court, where he is charged with the October 9 slaying of Dean Meyers (53) who was shot while pumping gas in Manassas, Virginia.

Malvo was expected to make an appearance in Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court on Friday. Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Horan Jr. has said he will seek to prosecute Malvo as an adult.

Authorities have not mentioned Malvo by name, but said instead that a “juvenile” will face capital murder charges for the October 14 shooting of FBI analyst Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot.

Horan and Paul Ebert, prosecutor in Prince William County, said it probably would be months before either trial begins. Both cases will go before grand juries after preliminary court hearings, they said.

The decision to prosecute in Virginia came as the federal government dropped extortion and firearms charges that could have led to the death penalty. Those charges can be reinstated later, though.

Two Virginia statutes make the sniper cases death-penalty eligible. One is a new anti-terrorism law passed after September 11 in which prosecutors need not prove who pulled the trigger for both to get the death penalty. The other provision allows capital punishment when more than one person is killed within three years, but only the triggerman can get the death penalty under that provision.

Asked if there was evidence 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.

Muhammad and Malvo were delivered on Thursday from federal custody to Virginia authorities. Virginia prosecutors said it will be several months before either case actually goes to trial.

Muhammad and Malvo were arrested October 24 after a three-week spree of killings that terrified the nation’s capital. A day after the arrests, Montgomery County, Maryland, 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.

Gansler said on Thursday “the most important objective in all of these prosecutions is that justice is done,” he said.

Prosecutors in Alabama and Louisiana also have filed charges against Malvo and Muhammad. In addition, they are suspects in shootings in Arizona and Washington state.

Police in Atlanta on Thursday said the September 21 murder of Million Waldemariam (41) could be connected to the pair because ballistics evidence matched a .22-calibre handgun recovered near an Alabama killing. Waldemariam, an Ethiopian immigrant, was killed outside the Atlanta liquor store where he worked.

The motive for the killing spree remains uncertain, but Muhammad’s ex-wife, Mildred Muhammad, who lives in the Washington suburb of Clinton, Maryland, said 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 on Friday. “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 couple had joint custody of their three children—ages 9, 10 and 12—after separating in March 2000, but Muhammad eventually took the children out of the country, according to court records.

When Mildred Muhammad, Muhammad’s second wife, got the children back, she took them into hiding. - Sapa-AP

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