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Sniper suspects appear in Va. courts

FAIRFAX, Va. -- The Jamaican teen-ager charged in the sniper slayings that sent fear through the Washington region made his first public court appearance Friday, where prosecutors revealed evidence linking him to three of the shooting sites in Virginia and to the rifle that authorities say was used in the deadly attacks.

Witnesses spotted 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo outside the Home Depot store in Falls Church, Va., where FBI analyst Linda Franklin was shot and killed Oct. 14, and at the sites of two other fatal shootings, said Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr.

Horan also said Malvo's fingerprints were found on the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle that police have linked to most of the serial sniper slayings, and he warned that Malvo has proved a crafty inmate, attempting a jail escape just hours after his arrest.

Malvo, who was ordered held without bail, said little during the 30-minute juvenile detention hearing. He sat slumped at the defense table in a prison-issue green jumpsuit, his chin resting in his left hand.

Less than 20 miles away, the man he is accused of teaming up with in the killing rampage that left 10 people dead and three wounded in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington also made his first appearance in a Virginia courtroom Friday. An unshaven and unkempt John Allen Muhammad, 41, was ordered detained during a hearing in Prince William County.

Both men appeared in court under heavy guard and intense scrutiny, a day after U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the pair would first be tried in Virginia, where they face charges that could bring the death penalty.

Horan said he would seek to try Malvo as an adult and said a death sentence would be appropriate in the case.

"Even if you don't believe in capital punishment, the legislature has said that capital punishment is available for certain crimes," Horan said outside the courtroom. "If this one doesn't qualify, none of them should."

Muhammad is charged in the Oct. 9 killing of Vietnam veteran Dean H. Meyers, 53, who was shot in the head while pumping gasoline. Malvo will stand trial in the fatal shooting of Franklin, 47, who was killed as she and her husband loaded packages into their car after a trip to Home Depot to buy supplies for a new house. <

Both are charged under a new anti-terrorism law in Virginia that allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty without having to prove who fired the gun. The two could also face the death penalty if prosecutors prove that they killed more than one person within a three-year period.

The men had each appeared before federal magistrate judges in Maryland over the past two weeks. Friday's hearing marked the first time proceedings against Malvo were open to the public, and reporters and other onlookers packed the Fairfax County courtroom to see the slight, 5-foot-5-inch teen-ager.

Malvo showed little emotion, answering simply, "Yes, sir," when asked if he understood his rights in Virginia's juvenile court system. His court-appointed defense attorney, Michael S. Arif, played down the significance of Malvo's fingerprints being found on the Bushmaster rifle discovered in the Chevrolet Caprice that Malvo and Muhammad were in when they were arrested.

"They don't mean anything," Arif said after the hearing.

Arif raised concerns, however, about authorities' questioning of Malvo for seven hours Thursday night without an attorney. It was unclear what information, if any, Malvo provided during the interrogation.

"I'm not at all comfortable with a 17-year-old in police custody being interrogated that long," Arif said. "I don't know whether he still thought he had counsel or not."

Meanwhile, Horan, a veteran of many high-profile capital murder cases, offered his own revelations. The prosecutor said that besides the sighting at the Home Depot, witnesses saw Malvo on Interstate 66 about 20 minutes after Franklin was shot.

The teen-ager was also seen near the shooting of Meyers in Manassas and the killing of Kenneth H. Bridges, 53, at a Spotsylvania County filling station on Oct. 11, Horan said. He offered no other details about the sightings and did not say whether the witnesses came forward before or after the two men were arrested.

Although Horan said Malvo's fingerprints were found on the rifle, he declined to say whether investigators think Malvo fired the shot that killed Franklin.

In urging that Malvo be held without bail in an adult jail, Horan said the teen-ager tried to escape the day he was arrested by climbing into the ceiling of his holding cell in Montgomery County. The boy crawled across at least two offices before plunging through ceiling panels and falling to the ground, Horan said.

Officials in Maryland had played down the escape attempt, saying Malvo was being monitored through surveillance cameras and was caught before he climbed into the ceiling.

A preliminary hearing for Malvo was scheduled for Dec. 5.

In Manassas, Va., a weary-looking Muhammad stood before Circuit Judge Herman A. Whisenant for less than five minutes in what was supposed to be an arraignment hearing. He was advised of the charges against him in Virginia and was asked if he wanted a court-appointed attorney.

"I thought I already had counsel," Muhammad said, apparently referring to the federal public defenders who had represented him in Maryland.

When Whisenant explained that the federal defenders could not represent Muhammad against charges in Virginia courts, Muhammad replied: "I don't know what to say, sir."

Whisenant said he would appoint an attorney for Muhammad at a hearing Wednesday.

Finding a court-appointed attorney qualified to handle such a high-profile capital case is a tall order, said Corinne J. Magee, a Fairfax-based lawyer who defended a 20-year-old Loudoun County woman in the stabbing death of her father, biophysicist Robert M. Schwartz, in a trial that ended in a guilty verdict last month.

Virginia law requires that defendants facing the death penalty be represented by a lawyer who has served as lead counsel in at least one capital case in the past five years or as co-counsel in two capital cases within the past seven years.

"I can almost guarantee that there are not enough capital- qualified lawyers in this state to handle this case," Magee said.

Professor Roger Groot, director of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse, based at Washington and Lee University, said the state has many qualified lawyers to take the two cases.

"Certainly there is a core of extremely capable capital defenders in Virginia because this is a very death-active state," Groot said. He said other factors, however, discourage attorneys from taking the cases.

"The difficulty is not that Virginia does not compensate appointed defense counsel," he explained. "It's that Virginia courts are more reluctant than some to provide them with other resources, namely experts to testify."

Neither case is expected to go to trial for months. When the trials do start, however, they are expected to be lengthy affairs.

Although the fatal shooting of Meyers at a Sunoco station just off Interstate 66 was the only sniper attack in Prince William County, prosecutor Paul B. Ebert said he will introduce most --if not all -- of the other shootings attributed to Muhammad and Malvo during the trial.

"At this juncture, we'll seek the death penalty unless someone can convince me otherwise," Ebert said at a news conference outside the Prince William County courthouse.

In both cases, prosecutors anticipate requests for a change of venue. But Horan said he was not worried that the publicity the case has drawn would prevent a fair trial for Malvo.

"I've been astounded through the years at the number of people who don't read newspapers or watch television," he said.

While the two murder cases proceed, authorities in Maryland and elsewhere continue to investigate other shootings for possible connections to Muhammad and Malvo.

Friday, Prince George's County police made official a link that they had suspected -- to a holdup Sept. 5 in Clinton. Paul LaRuffa, 55, was shot six times at close range as he locked his restaurant. A laptop computer was stolen; law enforcement officials seized a computer found in the car when Muhammad and Malvo were arrested.

"We're confident we have a match between the shooting on Sept. 5" and the suspects, said Capt. Andy Ellis of the Prince George's County Police Department. He refused to discuss evidence.

Sun staff writer Gail Gibson and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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