Feds prepare to present case to grand jury

Federal prosecutors are preparing to present their case against sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad to a grand jury, even though they don't know if they will be the first to prosecute him, a Justice Department spokesman said.

Under the Speedy Trial Act, federal prosecutors must present their charges against Muhammad to a grand jury -- and secure an indictment against him -- by Nov. 8, said spokesman Mark Corallo.

Federal prosecutors started the clock when they filed the 20-count complaint Tuesday against Muhammad, 41, former federal prosecutors said. Statutes require the indictment within 10 days of that filing, which charged Muhammad with extortion and weapons violations that could carry the death sentence.

"There are methods to obtain more time, but usually when you file a complaint, it means you're ready to roll," said Nicholas Gess, a former Justice Department official under the Clinton Administration.

Federal prosecutors may have felt pressure to file the complaint after Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler was the first to charge Muhammad with murder, law professors said today. Virginia soon followed with its own murder charges.

"The state's attorney for Montgomery County triggered a chain reaction," said Michael Greenberger, law professor at the University of Maryland.

Investigators say Muhammad and 17-year-old John Lee Malvo are responsible for the sniper attacks that left 10 people dead and three critically wounded. The pair also are charged with an Alabama slaying last month and are suspected in a February killing in Washington state.

There's no deadline for U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to decide who will be the first to prosecute the pair, Corallo said.

Ashcroft has indicated he'd like to see charges pressed in the jurisdiction with the strongest penalty, and he may be waiting to review the evidence each jurisdiction gathers, said George Beall, a former U.S. attorney in Maryland.

"There's no rush for him to decide," because the charges filed by each jurisdiction will stand no matter who goes first, Beall said.

The juggling of charges presents several scenarios for prosecution:

  • If federal attorneys prosecute first, states' attorneys in Maryland, Virginia and Alabama would file "detainers" to make sure Muhammad is held until they can "get a crack at him," said Scott Rolle, state's attorney in Frederick County, where the pair were arrested.

    That likely would happen after the federal case is finished -- after Muhammad is sentenced if he's found guilty.

  • If states' attorneys prosecute first, the federal charges would simply be put on hold until the states finish their cases, Rolle said. Charges on a state and federal level are not mutually exclusive, he said.

    With the order of prosecution to be determined, attorneys in each jurisdiction are left in limbo, former federal lawyers said. Attorneys must prepare their cases as quickly as possible, in case they're up next.

    For the grand jury hearing, federal prosecutors must present evidence on each of the 20 felony counts, said Abraham Dash, a criminal law professor at the University of Maryland and former federal trial attorney. The panel of 23 generally is on call for a month and would be culled from Montgomery, Prince George's, Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties.

    The grand jury proceedings are secret, and it won't be revealed if the grand jury is one that already is sitting to hear charges in separate cases.

    If the group returns an indictment, Muhammad would appear in court again to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If the plea is not guilty, it would be up to a federal judge to set a trial date, Corallo said.

    Malvo is believed to have appeared for the first time in court Oct. 24, the same day as Muhammad; Malvo's cases and appearances are closed because he is a minor.

    No matter which jurisdiction presses their case first, Muhammad is to appear at a detention hearing in federal court on Tuesday.

    There, attorneys will outline the affidavit and the complaint against Muhammad, former federal attorneys said. At the hearing, to be held in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, a judge will determine whether bail should be set.

    But the threshold of proof is low, Gess said, and the affidavit and complaint probably will be enough to hold the pair in custody.

    The hearing may be the public's only chance to learn more details about federal prosecutors' case against Muhammad, Dash said.

    "They may come forward with a little more than they actually need, because of the enormous interest in this case," Dash said.

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