Murder charges against Muhammad in one Va. sniper case are thrown out

October 02, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz, Laura Cadiz and Andrea F. Siegel | Julie Bykowicz, Laura Cadiz and Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

FAIRFAX, Va. - A Fairfax County judge dismissed capital murder charges against convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad yesterday, saying prosecutors violated his right to a speedy trial in the 2002 killing of an FBI analyst.

On the eve of the second anniversary of the Washington area's sniper shootings, Judge M. Langhorne Keith ruled that a detainer placed on Muhammad by Fairfax County in January started the clock ticking on the five-month window in which he should have been brought to trial.

News of the Fairfax dismissal spread about an hour before the dedication of a memorial to the Washington-area victims of the shootings at a park in Montgomery County.

Margaret Walekar, the widow of a taxi driver who was shot to death Oct. 3, 2002, said she fears the ruling means the victims' families will never reach peace. She said she is pained with each reminder that Muhammad and his teenage accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, are still living while her husband, Premkumar A. Walekar, is not.

"It's hard to see them on TV," she said. "It brings the memories back, it's like your heart starts bleeding again."

This was to be Muhammad's second capital murder trial. He already has two death sentences from a Prince William County, Va., conviction in the Oct. 9, 2002, fatal shooting of Dean H. Meyers of Gaithersburg at a gas station. That case is being appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, and prosecutors in Fairfax County were seeking two additional death sentences in the fatal shooting of FBI analyst Linda Franklin on Oct. 14 in a Home Depot parking lot near Falls Church.

Muhammad, 43, and Malvo have been linked to 10 fatal shootings in October 2002 in the Washington area - including six killings in Montgomery County. The two were apprehended Oct. 24 and were charged with murder in Maryland, Washington and Virginia for the sniper killings and in Alabama and Louisiana for earlier killings.

Douglas F. Gansler, Montgomery County state's attorney, said yesterday's ruling underscores the need for Muhammad to face trial in at least one other jurisdiction as a sort of "insurance policy" in case his Virginia death sentence is overturned.

"It would be just horrific if six or seven years from now the convictions are reversed and we have to start all over again," he said.

Because Keith cited Virginia's state statute instead of the constitutional requirement for a speedy trial, his ruling likely cannot be appealed, defense attorneys said.

Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. did not return calls yesterday. Muhammad remained in the Fairfax County jail last night.

Defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro said at a news conference yesterday that Muhammad was "glad to hear the news and looks forward to other battles ahead for him."

The defense argument that Keith ruled upon yesterday hinged on the point at which Muhammad's right to a speedy trial went into effect.

Virginia law requires that a person in custody be tried within five months of arrest, unless that right is waived. Defense attorneys Shapiro and Peter D. Greenspun argued that a Jan. 6 detainer lodged by Fairfax County with Prince William County, where Muhammad was being held as he awaited sentencing for Meyers' killing, was tantamount to an arrest.

Prosecutors countered that a detainer is a notice, not an arrest, and that Muhammad wasn't officially arrested on the Franklin charges until May 27. His trial was initially set for this month.

Keith, who took over the case last month after another judge recused himself, agreed with the defense attorneys.

"Muhammad argues that under the cases interpreting the Speedy Trial Statute a detainer constitutes an arrest for speedy trial purposes even if no formal arrest has been made," the judge wrote. "I agree."

Legal experts said the Fairfax prosecutors made a costly mistake but the stakes were not as high because Muhammad was already sentenced to death.

"Let's keep a perspective - John Muhammad has two death sentences. The reason for this prosecution was to ensure a death penalty would stick," said Richmond lawyer Steven D. Benjamin, president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys.

He said, "Virginia is very efficient at carrying out death sentences, so much so that Muhammad could be executed in three years if he loses his appeals."

At the dedication in Montgomery County yesterday, victims' families talked about the ruling but tried to focus on remembering their loved ones.

More than 300 people - including about 70 relatives of the sniper victims - gathered at Reflection Terrace, the memorial in Wheaton Regional Park's Brookside Gardens.

Relatives of five of the victims also spoke, some talking about the evil that robbed them of their loved ones but mixing the somber mood with uplifting memories that have helped them cope. They tried to keep yesterday's ruling in perspective.

"I'm extremely disappointed," said Denise Johnson, widow of Conrad Johnson, an Oxon Hill bus driver. "But there are other states that want to try Muhammad and Malvo."

Malvo faces life in prison for Franklin's death, and he recently agreed to plead guilty to murder in another sniper shooting in Virginia.

Larry Meyers said that after Muhammad was convicted of killing his brother, Dean Meyers, he distanced himself from the judicial process. But he said he believed the judge had no other choice in yesterday's ruling.

"I think he was only following the rules that are already in place for him to follow," he said.

Marvin D. Miller, an Alexandria, Va., attorney and a board member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said yesterday's dismissal offers a key lesson: "It's very important in a high-profile case like this that a judge follow the law - because if you can't follow the law in a case like this, they can't follow it for anybody."

In that sense, he said, the dismissal helps society. "[Muhammad has] a death penalty. There are other cases that can be brought. And society sees that there is a rule of law."

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