N.Va. prosecutors file sniper charges

Sniper shootings coverage
Prosecutors in Fairfax County, Va., filed the latest round of murder charges in the Washington-area sniper attacks and appeared late yesterday to be the leading choice of Justice Department officials for the high-profile assignment of trying the two suspects first.

Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan brought murder charges against John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17, in the Oct. 14 shooting of an FBI analyst outside a Home Depot store. Horan said he had evidence so solid that "if I had to go to trial next week, I could do so."

Horan appeared to lead the long list of prosecutors seeking to hold the first trial in the attacks, which left at least 10 people dead in the Washington region, a Maryland law enforcement source said yesterday.

Justice Department officials could announce a decision as early as today about which jurisdiction will lead the prosecution. A federal law enforcement source said that discussions were continuing late yesterday but that authorities were "leaning toward" a trial in Virginia, where state laws could make it easier for the government to win death sentences against both men.

Attorney General John Ashcroft told reporters earlier in the day that the first case would be held in the jurisdiction "which provides the best law and the best facts to bring individuals to swift and sure justice, with appropriate penalties."

"I think it's well understood on my part that I believe appropriate penalties for the kinds of atrocities that have been committed include the ultimate sanction of the death penalty," Ashcroft said.

Muhammad and Malvo are suspected of killing at least 13 people in six states and the District of Columbia. Before yesterday, prosecutors in three other Virginia counties and in Maryland had filed murder charges against the pair in connection with the random sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington region for most of October.

Of the jurisdictions in the area, only Virginia allows the death penalty for people under 18.

The two suspects are in the custody of the federal government, which has also brought charges in U.S. District Court in Maryland. That means the Justice Department will determine whether Muhammad and Malvo should stand trial first in federal court or be transferred to state-level authorities.

In announcing the Fairfax charges yesterday, Horan said there was no bickering among the competing jurisdictions about who should try the case first.

"To charge is not bickering," Horan said. "To charge is doing one's duty as a criminal prosecutor. If you've got the evidence, you ought to be prosecuting."

A Fairfax County grand jury indicted Muhammad yesterday on two counts of capital murder and a firearms violation, Horan said. Malvo was charged with identical counts in juvenile court, and Horan said he would seek to have the teen-ager tried as an adult.

As in the other Virginia counties, Fairfax prosecutors charged Muhammad and Malvo under the state's new anti-terrorism law, which gives the government greater latitude in seeking the death penalty.

They are charged with committing murder with the intent to "intimidate the public" or to "influence government officials." Under the statute, adopted by Virginia lawmakers in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, prosecutors do not have to prove who pulled the trigger in the crime to win a death sentence.

The men also could face the death penalty if they are found guilty of killing more than one person during a three-year period - meaning that prosecutors in Virginia could invoke the string of killings in Maryland and other states.

That charge would require prosecutors to identify the triggerman in the shooting that killed FBI employee Linda Franklin as she and her husband loaded packages into their car outside a Home Depot store in Falls Church.

Horan declined yesterday to say who he thought had fired the gun in Franklin's murder.

Franklin was the ninth person killed in the serial sniper attacks that began Oct. 2 in Montgomery County. The attacks had frustrated authorities, who had found few clues or reliable witnesses at each crime scene.

The shooting outside the Home Depot appeared to offer law enforcement officials some of their strongest leads in the case - until a key witness who claimed to have seen the shooter in the parking lot later admitted that he was in the store at the time of the slaying.

Fairfax prosecutors later charged the witness, Matthew M. Dowdy, 37, of Falls Church, with making a false statement to investigators.

Horan said yesterday that he had not discussed the strength of the Fairfax case with Ashcroft but was working closely with Paul McNulty, the U.S. attorney for Northern Virginia, who has been consulting with Justice Department officials and with the U.S. attorneys in Washington, D.C., and Maryland.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, whose office has handled the case against Muhammad and Malvo in the two weeks since their arrest, could not be reached yesterday for comment.

"Whatever decision the attorney general of the United States makes, I'm sure it's going to be evidence-driven," Horan said. "Once they make the judgment, my hope is if they defer, they defer to Virginia. ... . Of all the jurisdictions, [Virginia] is the one where we have a death penalty statute that has stood the test of time."

Sun staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.