Sniper suspects appear in Va. courts

The suspects in the sniper slayings that have that terrorized the Washington area for weeks appeared today in separate courts in Virginia, the state most likely to execute both suspects.

John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17, were transferred yesterday from federal custody in Baltimore to a high-security detention center in Virginia.

Muhammad was arraigned today on charges of capital murder and conspiracy in in Prince William County, Va., in the killing Oct. 9 of Vietnam veteran Dean H. Meyers. He was shot in the head while pumping gas in Manassas.

Malvo appeared in Fairfax County, Va., facing charges in the Oct. 14 shooting death of FBI analyst Linda Franklin. She was shot in the head as she and her husband loaded packages into their car after a shopping trip at a Home Depot store in the busy Seven Corners shopping center.

Their court appearances come a day after federal authorities said that the Army veteran and Jamaican teen-ager accused in the sniper slayings will stand trial first in Virginia, bypassing the state most closely identified with the attacks.

Muhammad, wearing a prison-issue orange jumpsuit and leg shackles, appeared before Circuit Court Judge Herman A. Whisenant Jr.

In his five-minute hearing, Muhammad referred to a lawyer appointed earlier by the federal court, telling the judge, "I thought I already had counsel."

Whisenant told Muhammad that he does not have a lawyer on the Virginia charges and again asked him if he wanted one appointed.

Muhammad responded, "I don’t know what to say, sir."

The judge indicated that counsel will be appointed and set another hearing for Wednesday.

At his hearing in Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, Malvo was ordered held without bond in the adult-detention facility in the county.

The teenager's public defender had requested that Malvo, who also faces the death penalty, be held in a juvenile facility. But the judge ordered Malvo held in the adult facility, because of what he called "the extraordinary nature of the allegations."

The judge set a Dec. 5 hearing for Malvo.

Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said he would seek to have Malvo tried as an adult.

Paul Ebert, Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney, said he intends to seek the death penalty against Muhammand under a state statute that allows for capital punishment when more than one person is killed within three years.

He said the case should come to trial within a year.

"A case like this takes a lot of preparation," Ebert said at a news conference after Muhammad's appearance. "The defense cousel will have a lot of montions, and there will be a lot of court appearances."

Ebert said he now understands Ashcroft's decision to try the suspects in separate jurisdictions.

"The magnitude of these cases necessitate that they be separated," he said. "The attorney general made the decision. At the time, I didn't appreciate the wisdom of his decision, but now I understand the amount of time and work that's involved."

Both men are charged under a Virginia anti-terrorism law that allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty without having to prove who was the triggerman in the crime. But yesterday's deliberate parsing of cases and counties suggested that authorities believe that the men took turns firing on their alleged victims and that evidence could show each was the shooter in the county where he is charged.

Ebert today acknowledged the risks associated with using the new anti-terror statute in this case.

"There will be a test on every issue in this case," he said. "It's a new statute that has not been tested. There is no precedent in this state."

In announcing his decision yesterday, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft praised the work of investigators in Maryland, where the three-week chain of shootings began and ended and where six of the 10 victims died. But Ashcroft said officials picked two Virginia counties to lead the prosecution because they provided the best legal framework, best evidence and best chance to secure death sentences.

"I believe that the citizens of all affected jurisdictions will be encouraged to see us move aggressively on these criteria, and that they will be pleased if we are as successful in our cooperative effort of prosecution as we have been in the effort to investigate this matter," Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft and the local prosecutors have declined to discuss the evidence in the cases. The attorney general's decision came as the long list of crimes attributed to Muhammad and Malvo continued to grow well beyond the three-week chain of attacks on the suburbs of Washington.

In Atlanta yesterday, local investigators said ballistics evidence had linked Muhammad and Malvo to a shooting outside a liquor store there Sept. 21 - the same day the pair is accused of shooting two women outside a liquor store in Montgomery, Ala., about 150 miles away.

The .22-caliber handgun used in those attacks also is believed to have been used in a Sept. 5 robbery and shooting that wounded a pizzeria owner in Prince George's County, weeks before the random serial slayings erupted with five killings in Montgomery County in a bloody 16-hour span Oct. 2 and Oct. 3.

Investigators in Louisiana and Washington state also suspect the pair in killings in those states, and police across the country are looking closely at a range of other unsolved crimes. Ashcroft and law enforcement officials said the nationwide investigation is continuing.

But the three weeks in October that made up the brunt of the killing and horrified the nation because of their random nature - with the victims killed as they went about everyday activities such as pumping gas or mowing a lawn - will be the focus of the first prosecutions.

Ashcroft yesterday described the attacks that left 10 people dead and three wounded, including a 13-year-old Bowie boy, as "brutal, random acts of murder" and said it is appropriate and "imperative that the ultimate sanction be available for those who have committed these crimes."

Maryland's chief federal public defender yesterday criticized the government for allowing Virginia's "rate of executions to dictate the decision about where justice would be sought in this case."

"The government's clumsy, macabre forum shopping for the easiest venue in which the death penalty could be obtained has diminished our system of justice," said James Wyda, who had represented Muhammad in the two weeks since his arrest.

Ashcroft had made no secret that the central question in the behind-the-scenes discussions over where to try the men focused on where prosecutors would be most likely to win a death sentence.

Of the jurisdictions in this area, only Virginia allows the death penalty for people who are under 18. Maryland and the federal court system prohibit the execution of minors.

Virginia ranks second in the nation, behind Texas, in death penalty cases. Virginia has executed 86 people since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 - including five people in the past two years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Maryland, which has a moratorium on executions, has put three people to death since 1976. And in the sniper case, there were other potential problems with a death penalty trial in Maryland. To seek the death penalty, prosecutors must prove one of 10 "aggravating factors." The one factor that most closely fits the sniper slayings in Montgomery County allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty when multiple homicides result from the "same incident."

Experienced prosecutors and legal experts said the sniper attacks, which occurred at different times and different locations even within Montgomery County, did not appear to fit that definition and warned that a death penalty verdict based on that logic could be overturned.

Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler filed the first murder charges against Muhammad and Malvo a day after their arrest, but it was clear within days that the first trial was unlikely to come in the county that had been the center of the investigation.

Gansler did not appear at yesterday's news conference in Washington, although other Maryland officials were on hand, including U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and two of the state's top federal law enforcement officers - FBI Special Agent Gary M. Bald and Special Agent Michael R. Bouchard with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"As I have said all along, the most important objective in all of these prosecutions is that justice is done and that these two men be held accountable for the crimes that they allegedly committed," Gansler said in a brief written statement.

DiBiagio's office had handled all proceedings against the two men since their arrest Oct. 24 at a rest stop outside Frederick. The high-profile case also could have brought tremendous attention to the Maryland U.S. attorney's office. Since taking over as U.S. attorney, DiBiagio has sought to build an image of his office as a get-tough and hard-charging team of prosecutors.

DiBiagio has refused to comment on the case. In U.S. District Court in Greenbelt yesterday, attorneys from his office filed notice that the 20-count criminal complaint against Muhammad would be dismissed. All federal proceedings against Malvo remained sealed.

Muhammad and Malvo were moved early yesterday from the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore, the downtown prison also known as Supermax, and transported under heavy guard to the Alexandria Detention Center in Northern Virginia.

Sun staff writers Laura Sullivan, Andrea F. Siegel and Julie Bykowicz, as well as The Associated Press, contributed to this report.