Prosecutor's bold move in sniper case surprises few

Gansler is well-known for his political ambition, work on high-profile cases

October 27, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

No one in Montgomery County legal or political circles was surprised Friday that State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler didn't wait around for the Justice Department or prosecutors in other states to decide where sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo should go on trial first.

No matter what the legal or logistical issues, when that jump ball was thrown in the air, they knew Gansler would come down with it. The hard-charging 39-year-old with his eye unabashedly fixed on higher office would never sit by while others took over a case that has elicited so much horror and fascination.

"I would have been shocked if he didn't take this aggressive, lead position," said Jim Shalleck, a Rockville Republican who ran unsuccessfully in the 1998 state's attorney race. "I expected it. He's very ambitious, and he's an upfront guy, and he thinks Montgomery County should have this case."

Until now, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose has provided a reluctant public face for the sniper case, appearing to relish his multiple daily news conferences about as much as a root canal.

Gansler is eager for the spotlight and always has been. He is credited with innovations in the state's attorney's office - notably assigning prosecutors to community offices across the county and diversifying the staff - but he is best known for his handling of high-profile cases and his penchant for news conferences.

Gansler handled Mike Tyson's 1999 plea agreement over a road rage incident in Gaithersburg that landed the boxer back in jail. And he led a failed effort to extradite Samuel Sheinbein, the boy who fled to Israel and claimed citizenship there after being charged with the murder of an acquaintance in Montgomery County.

The sniper case will attract more public scrutiny than even those, and Gansler says he's ready for the attention.

"Criminal conduct hurts communities as well as victims, and in this case in particular, while it had a deep impact obviously on the families of the victims, the community was a lot more deeply affected than in other cases," he said. "Our community needs to begin our healing process, and I feel it's sort of my job to lead them in that."

Katherine Winfree, who left a 19-year career at the U.S. attorney's office in Washington to become Gansler's deputy in 1998, said his determination to use the media to expose the workings of his office and the courthouse to the public has made him enemies.

"I think the legal community has respect for Doug. Will he ever be welcomed with open arms as an insider? Probably not," she said. "He is extremely independent, he believes very strongly in letting the public know what's going on in the courthouse and exposing them to what the state's attorney's office is doing, and that is something that has not been done before."

Although Gansler had served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., for six years, he had never tried a case in Montgomery County when he ran for state's attorney in 1998. The courthouse crowd derided him as a flashy media hound who only wanted the office as a steppingstone.

Four years later, his critics still say he is too focused on the media and higher office. But no one opposed his re-election.

"When nobody runs against you, that means either you're doing a good job or your opponents feel you're too strong to defeat," Shalleck said. "Believe me, if people thought he was vulnerable, he would have an opponent."

Gansler, a Democrat, doesn't hide his ambitions for statewide office. He was considered as a possibility for lieutenant governor on Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's ticket, and on the day when paperwork was due to run for office this year, he waited at the State Board of Elections on the off chance that Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. would decide at the last minute not to run.

"I just wanted to make sure," Gansler said.

Instead of playing cops and robbers, his two boys, 8 and 5, have been known to play "campaign," with one of them pretending to be a candidate and the other a reporter.

On Thursday morning, hours after Muhammad, also known as John Allen Williams, and Malvo, also known as Lee Boyd Malvo, were taken into custody, Gansler trekked to Baltimore to take part in a panel discussion on the case before the hundreds of journalists gathered for the Associated Press Managing Editors conference. At 10:30 this morning, he is scheduled to appear on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

As a political candidate, Gansler has a lot going for him. He is tall, broad-shouldered and square-jawed. He went to Sidwell Friends School in Washington, was an All-Ivy lacrosse player at Yale and received his law degree from the University of Virginia. His father, Jacques, was an undersecretary of defense in the Clinton administration, and his wife, Laura, is an attorney-turned-author.

She co-wrote Class Action, a book about a landmark sexual harassment lawsuit.

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