By Tom Jackman and David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo will be transferred to Montgomery County to face prosecution in the place where the most people were killed during the sniper attacks that terrorized the region in 2002, the governors of Virginia and Maryland said yesterday.
The decision was made by Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) after the Hanover County prosecutor decided not to proceed with charges against the pair, ending the state's sniper cases. Muhammad and Malvo were convicted in Virginia for their roles in the attacks, with Muhammad sentenced to death and Malvo to life in prison without parole.
Warner consulted with authorities in Maryland, the District, Louisiana and Alabama -- all places where sniper-related killings occurred -- before agreeing to make the transfer.
"I think the extent of the carnage they committed in Maryland made it seem obvious that Maryland would be the place where there was the most interest, from the community and the families of the victims, to seek justice there," Warner said last night.
The governor's decision refocuses the case on Montgomery County, which is where the Washington area killings began and ended. Six of the 10 area slayings took place there.
"The entire community was traumatized and paralyzed during that period, and we have an obligation to try them," said Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler. "There are six families that have never had their day in court. This is where the crimes occurred, and this is where they should be tried."
Many of the victims' families had mixed feelings about the prospect of facing another trial, but some said it was for the best. "Kids were in lockdown . . . and people were afraid to get gas," said Vickie Snider, sister of victim James A. "Sonny" Buchanan. "And I think it really and truly affected the residents of Montgomery County."
As part of the agreement, Virginia officials obtained a promise from Maryland to make Muhammad and Malvo available for any further proceedings in Virginia. Once their trials are completed in Maryland, the two will be returned to Virginia, where the governor can decide again whether to let another state try them or to let them serve their sentences.
Muhammad, 44, has been sentenced to death in Virginia for a sniper killing in Prince William County. The Virginia Supreme Court last month upheld the sentence, but his appeals continue, and Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert objected to Warner's decision.
"If, by some reason, this thing gets reversed, it will be some time before we get them back for a new trial," Ebert said. "It gives them the opportunity to delay the Virginia proceedings."
Warner said that he respected Ebert's opinion but that his staff felt confident that Muhammad's conviction would stand after its confirmation by the state Supreme Court.
Malvo, 20, was 17 at the time of the slayings and is not eligible for the death penalty because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in March barring the execution of juveniles. He was found guilty of one sniper killing in Fairfax County and sentenced to life in prison. He then pleaded guilty to a second killing in Spotsylvania County and withdrew his appeals.
Malvo's attorney, Craig S. Cooley, said he didn't understand the decision to prosecute someone who already has a life sentence and is not appealing. He noted that Malvo has no incentive to plead guilty or cooperate, "and these cases are very expensive."
Muhammad's attorneys also criticized Warner's decision as a waste of time and money.
"No one said the system is efficient," said Peter D. Greenspun, "which is being amply demonstrated by the governor and Mr. Gansler, who is willing to spend millions of Maryland taxpayer dollars to obtain no different result than what's already been obtained."
Gansler said that he did not know how much the trial would cost, but that the value to the community was worth the money and effort.
The sniper shootings began in the Washington region on Oct. 2, 2002, when James D. Martin was killed outside a Shoppers Food Warehouse in Wheaton. Five people were slain the next day -- four in Montgomery County and one in the District -- in a series of 13 shootings that ended only when Muhammad and Malvo were arrested at a rest stop in Frederick County on Oct. 24.
Ballistics tests showed that additional sniper slayings had occurred in September 2002 in Baton Rouge, La., and Montgomery, Ala. Murder charges were filed in all 12 slayings.
Then-U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft decided to allow the Virginia jurisdictions to try their cases first, even though half of the killings happened in Montgomery County. Virginia has a history of obtaining more death penalty convictions and at the time allowed the death penalty for juveniles, unlike Maryland.
Maryland officials were pleased yesterday to get their opportunity to try the snipers.
"There's an absolute need for an insurance policy to try these defendants under a different set of facts, in the event that the Virginia case is overturned," Gansler said.
He said he would seek the death penalty for Muhammad. In Maryland, the defense has an automatic right to request a change of venue for death penalty cases. Both Virginia cases were moved from the Washington region to find impartial juries.
Muhammad is on Virginia's death row at Sussex I State Prison in Waverly. Malvo is being held at Red Onion State Prison in Pound. Authorities declined to say yesterday when they might be moved to Maryland's custody, citing security concerns.
Staff writers Chris L. Jenkins, Jennifer Lenhart, John Wagner and Tara Young contributed to this report.