Malvo to be tried as adult

17-year-old suspect in sniper killings could face the death penalty

January 16, 2003|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

FAIRFAX, Va. - A Virginia judge cleared the way yesterday for 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo, one of two suspects in the Washington-area sniper shootings last fall, to be tried as an adult for capital murder and possibly face the death penalty.

After hearing testimony from 24 witnesses tying Malvo, also known as John Lee Malvo, to four shootings, three of them fatal, Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judge Charles J. Maxfield ruled that there was enough evidence to send the allegations against the teen to Circuit Court for trial.

"It is true that there is no eyewitness evidence to place this defendant at these crimes; however, the circumstantial evidence is quite strong," the judge said.

Weaving together the threads during a two-day hearing, federal agents and local police linked Malvo to two telephone calls to police and two written threats. That is significant because an anti-terrorism law passed in Virginia last year allows killers convicted of trying to coerce the government or intimidate the public to be put to death.

Authorities testified that Malvo's fingerprint was on the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle used in the four shootings, with the gun found a few feet from him when he and John Allen Muhammad, 42, were arrested Oct. 24 as they slept in their car at an Interstate 70 rest stop in Frederick County, Md. Malvo's fingerprint also was on a Dole CinnaRaisin bag found near where a man was wounded outside a restaurant in Ashland, Va., authorities said.

The messages to police carry a possible motive.

"In essence, they say, `If you want [us] to stop killing people, give us the money,'" Commonweath's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. told the judge, referring to notes left near crime scenes demanding $10 million in exchange for an end to the shootings. "If that is not the intent to intimidate the government, I don't know what is."

But Michael S. Arif, lead defense lawyer, contended that the evidence presented does not brand Malvo as a killer and said that prosecutors' allegations did not fit the anti-terrorism statute. "If you look at it in its broadest sense, it's blackmail," he said, saying the terrorism charge sounded like something out of an Austin Powers film comedy.

Authorities say they have tied Malvo to the killing Oct. 10 of Dean J. Meyers in Prince William County, Va.; the slaying Oct. 14 of FBI analyst Linda Franklin in a Home Depot parking lot in the Seven Corners area of Fairfax County, Va.; the nonfatal shooting Oct. 19 in Ashland, Va.; and the killing Oct. 22 of Ride-On bus driver Conrad Johnson in the Aspen Hill neighborhood of Montgomery County, Md.

An indictment charging Malvo with two counts of capital murder - in Franklin's death and under the new anti-terrorism law - and a weapons charge is expected next week.

On Oct. 15, less than a day after Franklin was killed, a caller whom police identified as Malvo called police in Rockville, Md., complaining that he had not gotten a response to a demand for money.

A chilling note found in the woods near where Conrad Johnson was slain Oct. 22 on the Ride-On bus he drove read: "Can you hear us now! Do not play these childish games with us. ... Your incompetence has cost you another life."

It repeated the demand for money and told police to say they had caught the sniper "like a duck in a noose," a baffling phrase that Montgomery County police Chief Charles A. Moose used in news conferences to communicate with the snipers.

That and other messages carry recurring themes, what Horan referred to as "call signs" of the words "Call me God. Do not release to press" and five red stars.

Presenting what is believed to be a fraction of his case against Malvo, Horan offered no DNA evidence, though that is expected at the trial. Arif said the defense, which cross-examined witnesses, learned "a little" from this week's hearing.

In a related proceeding, a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge is scheduled to hear an appeal Tuesday by Malvo's guardian, lawyer Todd G. Petit, challenging a juvenile court ruling that stripped him of most of his guardianship powers.

Malvo and Muhammad are suspected of killing 13 people and wounding five more in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., in the months before their arrest, but the first, and perhaps only, trials will take place in Virginia.

Muhammad is scheduled to be tried in October on capital murder charges in Prince William County in Meyers' death. Malvo's trial was tentatively set for Feb. 25, but Horan said he hopes it will take place this summer.

Both suspects are charged in Virginia under a law allowing a death sentence for committing more than one murder in three years. But prosecutors note that the anti-terrorism law does not require proof of who pulled the trigger, as does the other statute.

Two tapes of phone calls that prosecutors say Malvo made to police were played in court, and a Fairfax County detective identified the voice as Malvo's. June Boyle testified that she spoke with Malvo for six hours in police headquarters and said she would recognize his voice "immediately."

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