A Fairfax County judge yesterday dismissed capital murder charges against convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad, ruling that Muhammad's right to a speedy trial had been violated.
The ruling by Circuit Court Judge M. Langhorne Keith cannot be appealed by prosecutors. Keith cited Virginia law requiring that a jailed defendant be brought to trial within five months. The judge said that when Fairfax authorities sent notice to the Prince William County jail in January seeking Muhammad's detention, the action constituted an arrest under Virginia law.
Although the ruling has no effect on Muhammad's death sentence stemming from an earlier case in Prince William, yesterday's decision is a severe blow to a coordinated plan by Northern Virginia prosecutors to secure a series of convictions and death sentences for Muhammad as a safety net in case his appeal is successful.
The only other pending Virginia case against Muhammad that carries the death penalty, in Spotsylvania County, could now be subject to the same challenge.
The dismissal comes under the watch of Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., the state's most experienced prosecutor. Horan maintained that the detectives and lawyers handling the sniper case had done nothing wrong and did not arrest Muhammad until after his transfer to prison in late May. He filed a motion yesterday asking Keith to reconsider.
"We think arrest is like pregnancy," Horan said. "You can't be a little bit. Either you are or you aren't. . . . The evidence was he never was arrested" in Prince William.
Yesterday's ruling does not affect murder charges pending against Muhammad in four other jurisdictions where sniper killings occurred in September and October 2002: Maryland, the District, Alabama and Louisiana. Ten people were killed and three were wounded during the series of sniper shootings in the Washington region in October 2002.
Some of the victims' families gathered yesterday in Wheaton at the dedication of a memorial to the slain victims.
"It almost makes you sick just to think about it, knowing the murders [the snipers] committed," said Glenn Brewer, uncle of James L. "Sonny" Buchanan, one of five people shot dead Oct. 3, 2002.
Nelson Rivera, whose wife, Lori Lewis Rivera, was killed about two hours after Buchanan, said: "It doesn't really make that much sense to me. They're trying to give these guys a fair trial, and what they did is fair?"
Beverly Douglas, whose nephew Conrad E. Johnson was the snipers' last victim, said: "We're okay. We're not angry. We understand that the laws must be met and that things will happen. We just know that they cannot get away."
Muhammad will not be leaving Virginia any time soon, officials noted. The Fairfax case is not formally over, pending the prosecution's motion to reconsider, and his Prince William appeal is to be argued next month. The Spotsylvania case has not begun, and Keith's ruling is not binding on any other courts. A sniper wounding in Hanover County also awaits prosecution.
Ellen Qualls, a spokeswoman for Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), said Warner will deal with the issue of whether to send Muhammad out of state after all Virginia jurisdictions have had their say.
Muhammad's attorneys, Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro, who requested the dismissal, applauded the ruling. They said it ultimately acts to preserve the rights of everyone.