Washington — Now that the federal government has filed death penalty charges in the Washington-area sniper case, the focus shifts to who will be the first to try the suspects.
The federal complaint filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Maryland gives the U.S. government an advantage in ultimately determining whether the sniper trials will take place first in federal court or state courts in Maryland or Virginia.
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said the filing allows time for the investigation to continue so the best possible case can be brought, regardless of the venue. He said no decision has been made on which jurisdiction should go first, but the fact that both suspects John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17 are in federal custody gives Ashcroft great influence over that decision.
"I believe there is a great opportunity for us to cooperate to get the right results here, and I believe it will happen," Ashcroft said.
The complaint lists 20 firearms, extortion and interstate commerce counts against Muhammad. Malvo was not publicly charged because he is a juvenile. Ashcroft said a court must first certify that he should be treated as an adult within the federal system before authorities can even discuss his case.
Minors may be charged with capital crimes in federal court but cannot be executed.
Ashcroft said the complaint makes clear that U.S. officials seek "the most serious penalties" for the three-week spate of shootings in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., that left 10 dead and three seriously injured.
"I believe the ultimate sanction ought to be available here," Ashcroft said. "I consider the matters charged to be atrocities."
Because of that, Virginia may be the leading candidate to try the suspects first. Virginia allows the death penalty for 17-year-olds and since 1976 it has executed 86 people, more than any state but Texas. Virginia authorities filed capital murder charges Monday.
Despite Virginia's apparent advantages in trying death penalty cases, a senior Justice Department official cautioned that a final decision on where to hold the first trial would be based on other factors as well. These include the strength of the evidence and which laws state or federal provide the best chances for a conviction, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In Maryland, Montgomery County prosecutor Doug Gansler has been insisting that he be allowed to go first because six of the murders occurred in that county. But federal officials have repeatedly said that Maryland's death penalty laws, which require one of 10 aggravating circumstances for capital punishment to apply, make it highly unlikely the first trial would occur there. Maryland also has suspended executions and does not allow capital punishment for juveniles.
"We don't know when or if we will ever be able to bring this case to justice in Montgomery County. We don't know when we will learn from the Department of Justice," Gansler said. "They hold all the cards."