Next step for snipers in hands of Virginia

As others vie to prosecute, Md. in no hurry for trials

January 11, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

As the governor of Virginia prepares to make a decision on where convicted snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo will next stand trial, prosecutors across the country are lobbying to bring the two men to their courtrooms to face additional juries and further punishment.

The chief prosecutor in Montgomery, Ala., recently sent two strongly worded letters to the Virginia governor pleading her case. The prosecutor in Baton Rouge, La., has scheduled an arraignment for the snipers for May 3. Prosecutors in Virginia are saying the pair should face more trials there before being sent elsewhere.

But one state not actively pushing to get its hands on the snipers is Maryland, location of six of the 10 sniper killings that terrorized the capital region in the fall of 2002. Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has not taken a position on whether the snipers should be tried here, and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan is not pressing the case.

Seemingly, the only public official in Maryland who wants to try the snipers here is Montgomery County District Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, but even he is not lobbying hard. He hasn't spoken to his counterparts in Virginia in months, and he says that other states may have better claims on the pair.

"If you're going to highlight why the trials should not occur in Maryland, certainly at the top of the list, for many people, is that the death penalty is not available for Malvo," Gansler said. "And for Muhammad, it's unlikely, given the way the death penalty has been carried out in Maryland in the last 30 years."

Malvo, 18, was sentenced to life in prison without parole by a jury in Chesapeake, Va., last month. Finding a jurisdiction that could secure the death penalty for Malvo is thought to be a key consideration for Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat who has final say on where the snipers go next.

Md., D.C. wait it out

The teen-ager would not be eligible for the death penalty in Maryland because of his status as a juvenile at the time of the killings. Likewise, he would not be eligible for death in Washington state, the site of a killing Malvo admitted to in court, or in Washington, D.C. The district does not have the death penalty.

"It is our belief that the defendants will be tried first in the jurisdictions where they face the greatest penalty, and that of course is not D.C.," said Channing Phillips, chief of staff to the U.S. attorney for the district.

A jury in Virginia Beach, Va., recommended in November that Muhammad, 43, be put to death, and yesterday a judge set Muhammad's formal sentencing for March 10. With Virginia's rapid appeals process - about five years between a death sentence and actual execution - some wonder why other states should bother with future trials for the sniper mastermind.

"Virginia can reasonably adopt the attitude that it has obtained the death sentence and it will carry it out very efficiently, that other states should simply let Virginia do what Virginia does best," said Steven D. Benjamin, president-elect of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "Everyone knows that's why the cases came here."

Some officials in Maryland and Virginia said they expect the snipers will stay in Virginia and face additional trials there before going elsewhere - if they ever leave the state. That would mean the prosecutor who tried Muhammad would try Malvo and the prosecutor who tried Malvo would try Muhammad.

"They've been through the trials; they know the evidence," said Duncan, the Montgomery County executive. "It makes perfect sense."

But Ellen Brooks, the district attorney in Montgomery, Ala., says there is a risk that Muhammad and Malvo's convictions could be overturned on appeal, so it's prudent to try them elsewhere while appeals on the Virginia laws wend through the courts.

Brooks has charged both men with capital murder in the killing of Claudine Parker, 52, and attempted murder in the shootings of Kellie Adams, 24, outside a Montgomery liquor store on Sept. 21, 2002. Authorities think Muhammad fired the shot that killed Parker and then Malvo ran onto the scene to steal her purse. But that doesn't mean Malvo can't be executed.

"All participants are equally liable under Alabama law," Brooks wrote to the Virginia governor. "There is no distinction between a principal and an accessory. The prosecution does not have to prove who fired the fatal shot. The death penalty can be and has been given to a non-triggerman in a robbery."

Alabama has even more in its favor, Brooks noted. Unlike in Virginia, Alabama juries need not be unanimous to sentence a defendant to death. A vote of 10-2 for death is sufficient. Furthermore, Alabama judges are allowed to override a jury's life sentence and impose a death sentence - a move not permitted for Virginia judges.

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