Compared with every other community touched by the Washington area sniper case, Spotsylvania County is slated to have the shortest legal chapter of the story thus far.
Lee Boyd Malvo is scheduled to plead guilty this afternoon to murder charges under an agreement with Commonwealth's Attorney William Neely, the only prosecutor who has been willing to make a deal with one of the snipers and avoid a trial, which he says could cost $2 million. Prosecutors in the Washington region and in other states, however, are entwined in cases against Malvo, 19, and John Allen Muhammad, 43, or say they want to be.
Spotsylvania's William Neely made a plea deal with Lee Malvo.
Under the agreement with Neely, Malvo will plead guilty to capital murder and attempted capital murder and be sentenced to life in prison without parole, said Craig Cooley, one of Malvo's attorneys. Several other charges will be dropped, including malicious wounding and conspiracy, Cooley said.
In Spotsylvania, a county about 60 miles south of Washington, Malvo and Muhammad are charged with killing a Philadelphia businessman, Kenneth Bridges, 53, and trying to kill a local woman, Caroline Seawell, then 43.
About 2:30 p.m. Oct. 4, 2002, Seawell, a mother of two, was shot and wounded while loading packages into the back of her minivan parked outside a Michaels craft store. A week later, at 9:28 a.m. Oct. 11, Bridges, a father of six, was shot to death when he stopped for gas.
Seawell and Bridges were the seventh and 10th of 13 people shot during the three-week series of shootings in the Washington region that claimed 10 lives. Charges are pending against Malvo and Muhammad in four other jurisdictions where killings occurred: Maryland, the District, Alabama and Louisiana.
Cooley said he initiated talks with Neely's office a few months ago. "We're trying to close doors wherever we can," he said.
But much of the legal future of the convicted snipers is unclear.
Malvo's status in Virginia and in other states rests on whether the U.S. Supreme Court rules that it is unconstitutional to execute killers who were 16 or 17 at the time of their crimes. Malvo was 17 when the shootings took place. Prosecutors in Prince William County say they are waiting for that ruling, and Cooley said the same is true in Louisiana and Alabama.
That ruling will affect other cases, including one in Hanover County, north of Richmond, where the two have been indicted in the wounding of Jeffrey Hopper, then 37, outside a Ponderosa steakhouse in Ashland. Commonwealth's Attorney Kirby Porter said he would like to try the pair "as insurance" that they remain locked up -- especially if the death penalty was ruled out for Malvo or if Muhammad's death sentence was overturned.
Malvo, who will be in court today, is serving a life sentence in the Oct. 14, 2002, slaying of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, 47, in Fairfax County. He spends his days in isolation at Red Onion State Prison in southwestern Virginia, Cooley said.
Asked whether the plea agreement requires Malvo to testify against Muhammad, Cooley said, "Not in Spotsylvania." As for elsewhere, he said, "I'm not at liberty to discuss that."
Muhammad's attorneys say they have no idea where his case is headed.
Fairfax County's case against him was dismissed this month after a judge ruled that prosecutors had violated the state's speedy trial law by not trying him within five months of issuing a detainer, which is the legal equivalent of an arrest.
Spotsylvania, the only other Virginia jurisdiction with a potential death penalty case pending against Muhammad, issued a detainer against him in 2002, Muhammad's attorneys said. Neely did not return telephone calls, but he has been reported as saying he believes his detainer still stands -- though he has called the process of trying the pair repeatedly for the same penalties expensive and possibly "silly."
Peter D. Greenspun, one of Muhammad's attorneys, said he believes that the detainer issue is the same in Spotsylvania as it was in Fairfax and that there is no case.
Next week, Muhammad's defense team will appeal his death penalty conviction from Prince William before the Virginia Supreme Court.
Greenspun said attorneys have dozens of points, including challenging whether someone can be sentenced to death for a slaying in which he was not proved to be the triggerman.
The state Supreme Court could uphold the conviction; overturn it and order a new trial; or set aside the death penalty and call for a new sentence.
If the conviction was overturned and if Spotsylvania did not try Muhammad, it would be up to Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) to decide where the sniper would head next. Ellen Qualls, a Warner spokeswoman, said the governor would let the cases leave the state only "if all direct appeals in Virginia had been exhausted."
Murder charges against Malvo and Muhammad also are pending in the District and Montgomery County, where prosecutors say they want to try them.