2 charged with murder in Md.

Montgomery Co. is first to act, bringing 6 counts against sniper suspects

Execution of adult to be sought

Jurisdiction rift focuses on where death sentence is most likely to be won

Search Fro The Sniper

October 26, 2002|By Gail Gibson and Stephen Kiehl | Gail Gibson and Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE - Montgomery County authorities brought the first murder charges last night against an Army veteran and his teen-age companion in the string of deadly sniper shootings as prosecutors in three states and Washington, D.C., thrashed out which jurisdiction would get the high-profile assignment.

Even as Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler announced he would seek the death penalty for suspect John Allen Muhammad, however, it was unclear whether the case would be eligible under Maryland's capital punishment laws.

That fueled speculation that Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17, instead would be tried first in the federal courts or in Virginia, where death penalty laws are broader and used far more frequently. But Gansler said the defendants should first face a jury in the county where the most victims were killed.

"Montgomery County was the community most affected and most impacted by the sniper shootings," Gansler said. "Unfortunately, we suffered six of the 10 homicides in our community, and seven of the 10 homicide victims lived here."

Gansler's office issued arrest warrants last night charging Muhammad and Malvo with six counts of murder in the Oct. 2 death of James D. Martin, the Oct. 3 deaths of James L. "Sonny" Buchanan Jr., Prem Kumar Walekar, Sarah Ramos and Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, and in the Oct. 22 death of county bus driver Conrad E. Johnson - the last victim in the rampage that also touched Virginia and the District of Columbia.

The warrants identified Muhammad as John Allen Williams of Tacoma, Wash., and Malvo as John Lee Malvo of Bellingham, Wash. Williams changed his name last year to Muhammad; Malvo has been identified on other documents as Lee Boyd Malvo.

Maryland prosecutors cannot seek the death penalty against Malvo because Maryland law - unlike in Virginia - prohibits death penalty prosecutions for defendants under 18. Gansler said the teen-ager, a Jamaican national who slipped illegally into the country last year, would be tried as an adult and could face life in prison without parole if convicted.

While Montgomery County officials moved ahead with their murder case, state prosecutors in Virginia also made plans to seek grand jury indictments in four counties there, and U.S. attorneys from the two states and the District of Columbia were reviewing options for a federal prosecution with Justice Department officials.

In Alabama, where Muhammad and Malvo are also suspects in a deadly Montgomery liquor store robbery Sept. 21, officials filed murder charges yesterday against the two men, saying they would seek the death penalty. That case is not considered part of the string of sniper attacks, but evidence from the crime scene helped lead authorities to Muhammad and Malvo.

The two were arrested early Thursday morning at a rest stop near Frederick. Investigators have said that a semiautomatic rifle found in their car has been linked to 11 of the 14 shootings - seven of those in Montgomery County, including the first and the last killings. In one of the shootings, no one was hurt.

One central question in the behind-the-scenes discussions over where to try the men has been where prosecutors would be most likely to win a death sentence, and Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore made a blunt appeal: "I have no doubt that under Virginia law, we will be able to seek the death penalty for both suspects."

Virginia ranks second in the nation, behind Texas, in death penalty cases. The state has executed 86 convicted criminals since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 - including five people in the past two years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Maryland, which has a moratorium on executions, has put three people to death since 1976.

There are other potential problems with a death penalty trial in the sniper case.

To seek the death penalty, prosecutors must prove one of 10 "aggravating factors." The one factor that most closely fits this case allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty when multiple homicides result from the "same incident." But experienced prosecutors and legal experts said the sniper attacks in the state, coming at different times and locations, did not appear to fit that definition.

"The law seems to say that it has to be multiple murders, in one incident, and in this case you would have to say these six separate acts were somehow one incident," said Frederick County State's Attorney Scott L. Rolle, who lobbied unsuccessfully for an expansion of the state's death penalty laws in 1997. "I think that's a tough row to hoe."

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