Federal authorities transferred the two suspects in the Washington-area sniper killings into the custody of Virginia officials Thursday, setting up local prosecutions that could lead to the death penalty for Army veteran John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, his 17-year-old companion.
Solemnly describing how a sniper killed 10 victims in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia over three weeks last month, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said he chose two Virginia counties for the first prosecutions because they provided "the best law, the best facts and the best range of available penalties."
Ashcroft's decision to dismiss federal extortion and firearms charges and turn the suspects over to Virginia ensures that Muhammad and Malvo will face murder charges that could bring the death penalty in a state ranking behind only Texas in executions. Virginia has put 86 prisoners to death since 1976.
"Virginia's been aggressive in its prosecutions," said Prince William County Commonwealth's Atty. Paul Ebert, who said he would seek the death sentence against Muhammad for the Oct. 9 slaying of engineer Dean Harold Meyers at a Manassas, Va., gas station.
"The death penalty's reserved for the worst of the worst," he added. "And I think from the evidence, these folks qualify."
Although Ashcroft referred to Malvo only as "the juvenile," the youth will be charged as an adult in the Oct. 14 death of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, said Fairfax County Commonwealth's Atty. Robert F. Horan Jr. A federal official said Thursday that investigators have concluded that it was Malvo who fired the high-velocity .223-caliber rifle round that fatally wounded Franklin in the parking area of a Home Depot store in Falls Church, Va.
The move to Virginia also strengthens the array of evidence that can be used against the pair, authorities said. Federal charges filed last month against Muhammad and Malvo had been tied to a statute that requires proving that the suspects conspired to affect interstate commerce by extortion and threats of physical violence.
Muhammad's federal public defender, James Wyda, warned this week that the charge under the federal Hobbs Act was a "stretch" because it was based on a rambling $10-million ransom note left at a Virginia shooting scene after 12 people had already been shot. But one federal official said Thursday that federal prosecutors in Baltimore will likely resurrect those charges after Virginia prosecutors make headway in their own murder cases.
While U.S. marshals drove the two suspects Thursday morning in a caravan of heavily guarded vehicles from a federal facility in Baltimore to the Alexandria Detention Center in northern Virginia, police investigators in Atlanta were using new ballistics evidence to link the two drifters to a Sept. 21 slaying at a Georgia liquor store.
The Atlanta killing is the fourth connected to the sniper suspects since their arrests last month. Police in Montgomery, Ala., have filed murder charges stemming from a Sept. 21 homicide in that city, and investigators in Tacoma, Wash., Baton Rouge, La., and Tucson also are examining the suspects' possible involvement in fatal shootings.
The most recent flurry of police interest centers on a .22-caliber Magnum handgun recovered last week near the scene of the Sept. 21 liquor store slaying in Montgomery. Ballistics experts from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms test-fired the gun Wednesday, and by Thursday it had been linked to the Atlanta slaying and was being examined in connection with two September shootings in Clinton, Md., near the home of Muhammad's former wife.
James Cavanaugh, an ATF agent in Nashville, said tests would also be conducted on a .22-caliber projectile found this week on a Tucson golf course where a man was shot to death March 19. Police initially reported that the victim, Jerry R. Taylor, had been killed by a high-powered rifle.
Cavanaugh said the projectile found this week by federal agents and Tucson police would be tested against the handgun found in Montgomery. Comparisons may also be conducted with a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle that was seized from Muhammad's blue Chevrolet Caprice the morning of his arrest Oct. 24. The rifle has been linked by ballistics tests to 11 of 13 sniper-related shootings in the Washington suburbs; the bullets in the other shootings were too badly damaged for comparisons.
After Montgomery police recovered the .22-caliber handgun in a pile of leaves near where two suspects fled after the liquor store shooting, ATF agents traced it back to a man in Oklahoma who bought it in August 1998, Cavanaugh said. The Oklahoma owner moved to El Paso, where the pistol was on display in a glass case at a gun show when it was reported missing July 20. Investigators are trying to determine whether Muhammad and Malvo were in El Paso during that period.
"We don't know if they had it at that time," Cavanaugh said.
As investigators have burrowed backward, finding more matches between guns tied to the suspects and homicides and shootings committed across the country, Ashcroft was confronted with vexing procedural and political questions about where to base the first prosecutions.
Along with the option of keeping the federal charges intact, he had the choice of deferring to local prosecutors in three Virginia counties or in Alabama.
Ashcroft had decided quickly not to consider turning the two suspects over to local prosecutors in Montgomery County, Md., where six victims were slain.
Despite the devastating spate of killings in the Maryland suburbs, federal officials were dissuaded by Gov. Parris Glendening's temporary ban on executions and legal barriers against imposing a death penalty on Malvo because he is a juvenile.
"The citizens of all affected jurisdictions will be encouraged" by the Virginia prosecutions, Ashcroft said Thursday. As he spoke, he was flanked by prosecutors and police from several Virginia counties and by Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan and Police Chief Charles A. Moose, who headed the sniper task force.
Duncan deflected questions about Maryland's failure to win the first prosecutions, saying: "We suffered as a region and we're solving this as a region."
But there was a conspicuous absence among the government officials gathered around Ashcroft: Montgomery County State's Atty. Douglas F. Gansler. The Maryland prosecutor issued a statement Thursday saying he would work "cooperatively with prosecutors and investigators" in Virginia.
One federal official said Thursday that Alabama also had briefly emerged as an attractive proposition for the first trial because it was the only location where police and eyewitnesses had identified Muhammad and Malvo allegedly in the act of committing a crime.
But after conferring for two days with FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Virginia authorities, Ashcroft decided to transfer the custody of the sniper suspects to Virginia.