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Arguments Flare on Sniper Suspects

October 25, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ The cooperative effort by hundreds of federal, state and local officials that produced arrests in the sniper shootings may be unraveling over how the suspects should be prosecuted.

A senior Justice Department official expressed anger and surprise Friday when Maryland prosecutors announced plans to try the suspects first.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said federal authorities still may assert jurisdiction over John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo.

The comments came after Montgomery County State’s Attorney Doug Gansler said he would pursue murder charges against both suspects in Maryland.

The dispute stood in stark contrast to the cooperation between authorities in Virginia and Maryland as well as agencies such as the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that cracked the sniper case.

Television viewers nationwide became familiar with the briefings given by Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose, flanked by senior FBI and ATF officials. Moose led the task force, while federal officials provided support.

But now the lawyers have the case.

U.S. officials described Maryland’s death penalty, now suspended, as relatively weak and frequently overturned by state appeals courts. Sandra A. O’Connor, a Republican state’s attorney in Baltimore County, said state law requires that one of 10 specific aggravating circumstances be met for the death penalty to apply. Serial murder is not one of them, and she cited instances in which serial killers have gotten less than the ultimate punishment.

``Would we bring this as a death penalty case? Our answer is no,″ O’Connor said, adding that there have only been three executions in Maryland since 1978. ``To me, you go with the strongest case.″

One option for federal prosecutors is the Hobbs Act, which allows the government to seek the death penalty in murders where killers try to extort money. Police sources have said that one letter left behind in the sniper cases demanded $10 million.

Gansler, a Democrat, said the matter of which jurisdiction goes first is ``a continuing dialogue″ and acknowledged that federal charges would take precedent over any state effort if the Justice Department decides to take that route. He said it was nevertheless important for Montgomery County to bring its charges, given that six of the killings happened there.

But Gansler said federal officials ``hold the trump card″ because they have Muhammad and Malvo in custody.

``The federal authorities have some time. They are going to exercise that time that they do have,″ Gansler said. ``We anticipate hearing from them early next week.″

The suspects could also face the death penalty in Virginia, where three victims were slain and another wounded. That state has executed 86 people since 1976, second in the nation to Texas.

Alabama law enforcement officials also filed murder charges Friday against the two suspects. They plan to seek the death penalty in the fatal shooting of a woman during a liquor store robbery Sept. 21 in Montgomery, Ala.

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