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Prosecutors in sniper case will call for death penalty

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Prosecutors in sniper case will call for death penalty


By Robert Schlesinger and Tatsha Robertson, Globe Staff, 10/26/2002

ROCKVILLE, Md. - Prosecutors said yesterday they would seek the death penalty in the case of the deadly sniper shootings that menaced the national capital region for nearly a month.

Authorities in Maryland - and in Alabama, where a deadly shooting apparently presaged the string of killings - said they would file charges yesterday that could carry the ultimate penalty for one or both of two males taken into custody Thursday.

In Virginia, authorities were said to be preparing capital charges as well, as law enforcement officials in several jurisdictions jockeyed to prosecute Army veteran John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, who were arrested after three weeks of sniper attacks that left 10 dead and three wounded. The Alabama charges related to the shooting of two women outside a liquor store in Montgomery last month.

The final decision on where the first case is brought will probably be made by federal prosecutors, as the two suspects are currently being held on separate federal charges. Deputy US Attorney General Larry Thompson met with the US attorneys from Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and the Eastern District of Virginia, a Justice Department official said, to consult on evidence, statutes, and possible charges. Federal charges could trump any local charges filed by eight jurisdictions: four in Virginia, two each in Maryland, Alabama, and Washington, D.C.

''These two men terrorized and instilled fear into the very marrow of our communities,'' said the Maryland State's Attorney, Douglas Gansler, announcing he would bring six charges against the pair in Montgomery County, where six of the 13 attacks took place.

Gansler said that both Muhammad and Malvo will be charged as adults. However, because Maryland law bars the death penalty for juveniles, only Muhammad would be eligible for capital punishment here.

Gansler made the announcement following a meeting of prosecutors from the jurisdictions where the attacks took place. No agreement was reached on which jurisdiction should proceed first. ''Montgomery County was the community most affected and most impacted by the sniper shootings,'' Gansler said.

Maryland has a moratorium on executions, but that ban does not keep prosecutors from seeking the death penalty or courts from conducting capital trials. He also said he expects the moratorium will be lifted before it can become an issue.

Regardless of which jurisdiction gets the case first, charges would still remain valid in the others. The District of Columbia does not have the death penalty, but it is possible the pair could be prosecuted there under the federal Hobbs Act, which allows the death penalty in murder cases in which the defendants try to extort money. The snipers allegedly asked for $10 million. Virginia and Alabama also have the death penalty, and Malvo would be eligible for execution in those states.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in Virginia in 1976, the state has executed 86 people - more than any state except Texas.

In Montgomery, Ala., Police Chief John Wilson also announced murder charges against Muhammad and Malvo.

''We want to send a very strong message to not only this community and this state but the country that this is not the kind of conduct, this is not what we expect of civilized society,'' Wilson said. ''We're going to make an example of somebody.''

Wilson said he now believes Muhammad was the gunman who shot to death an Alabama woman and seriously injured another woman on Sept. 21 as the women closed ABC Beverage, a liquor store in Montgomery.

Wilson said during a news conference yesterday that authorities were signing capital murder warrants for Muhammad and Malvo and that prosecutors plan to try Malvo as an adult.

According to police in Montgomery, the shooting in Alabama was the first in the string of sniper killings that quickly moved to the Washington area. Wilson said evidence his department supplied to the FBI was crucial in cracking the sniper case. Malvo's fingerprint found at the crime scene helped link the two men to the crimes in the Washington area, officials have said. Wilson, who wouldn't go into detail about the discovery of the fingerprint, did say his department had entered the fingerprint into a database and that eventually the department would have identified the suspects.

According to police, Kellie Adams, 24, and Claudine Parker, 52, were closing the liquor store at about 7:30 p.m. when they were shot at relatively close range. Two patrol officers were driving by the building when they heard the gunshots. Police saw a man standing over the women, going through their purses. Wilson said Officer Dwight Johnson saw the man and chased him but was unable to capture him.

Wilson said Johnson identified the man as Muhammad. Another witness indicated that a young man resembling Malvo was nearby. Malvo's fingerprint was found at the scene.

''We can place them here in Montgomery, at the scene, by both eyewitness accounts and physical evidence,'' Wilson said.

Wilson said he doesn't want to hurt the investigation in the Washington area but wants to continue investigating the case in Montgomery.

In New Jersey, meanwhile, a material witness warrant was issued for Nathanel O. Osbourne, 26, a co-owner with Muhammad of the car that was allegedly modified to allow sniper fire from its closed trunk.

Material from wire services was used in this report. Schlesinger reported from Washington; Robertson reported from Montgomery, Ala. Robert Schlesinger can be reached at schlesinger@globe.com

This story ran on page A8 of the Boston Globe on 10/26/2002.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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