Md. Sniper Trial Could Spotlight Politicians

By David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 16, 2005

When Virginia officials decided last week to send convicted snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo to Maryland for prosecution, they presented two of Montgomery County's most ambitious politicians with a potential opportunity to overcome a nagging problem they both share: low visibility beyond the Washington suburbs.

But for State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler and County Executive Douglas M. Duncan -- both Democrats who are widely expected to run for statewide office in Maryland next year -- the prosecution of Malvo and Muhammad in Montgomery also presents a range of possible political liabilities if the case is perceived as too costly or goes badly for the prosecution.

Gansler, who has all but declared his candidacy for Maryland attorney general, probably will be in front of television cameras for much of the lead-up to the trial. Duncan, expected to run for governor, almost certainly will have a less prominent role, but as the county's top elected official will be expected to weigh in on the trial from time to time.

Gansler, serving his second term as state's attorney, rejected the notion that he stands to gain politically from the trial.

"My view has always been that the best thing I can do politically is to be apolitical in each and every decision I make in terms of prosecutions -- who we prosecute, when we prosecute," he said. "The biggest political benefit comes from running the best state's attorney's office in the state of Maryland."

Duncan spokesman David Weaver declined to address the question of political considerations in the sniper trial and said: "The county executive has pledged his full support and cooperation to the state's attorney's office to see that we have swift and certain justice in these cases."

But political observers say both men saw their campaign calculations shift significantly when it became clear that the snipers would be tried in Maryland, although Duncan has less to gain -- and lose -- than Gansler.

"The political fallout from a trial could be immensely important for a Gansler candidacy," said Stanton J. Gildenhorn, a Montgomery political activist and former county Democratic Party chair. "Both [Duncan and Gansler] have to campaign statewide, and it's an immense effort to become known around the state and outside this [the Washington area] media market."

Media coverage of the Maryland trials of Muhammad and Malvo -- which probably will start next spring or summer, just as the Democratic primaries are heating up -- is almost certain to be significantly less than the national coverage of the first trials, which were in Virginia. Muhammad and Malvo have been convicted, and Muhammad has been sentenced to death.

But for two public figures who are well-known in their home jurisdiction but not far beyond, the broader coverage within the state that a Maryland trial is certain to receive could provide an unusual opportunity to become known to a wider audience.

"For Duncan, I don't think there's that much to be gained. He'll be effectively sidelined," said Johns Hopkins political science professor Matthew A. Crenson. "But for Gansler, I think this case is probably going to be good for him. Not because he's trying it . . . but when people do articles, when television covers the trials, his name is going to come up."

To become known outside the Washington suburbs, Duncan and Gansler will have to sell their case in parts of the state that often cast a skeptical eye on liberal, affluent Montgomery County, said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

"I don't think anyone coming out of Montgomery County is yet seen by the rest of the state as being a true Marylander," Norris said. "There is still a good deal of tension between Montgomery County and the rest of the state because Montgomery County is quite different in many respects."

For Duncan, the challenge is overcoming recent polls showing his likely opponent in the Democratic primary, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, with a strong statewide lead. For Gansler, it is getting people throughout the state to even recognize his name -- particularly given that his probable primary opponent, five-term incumbent J. Joseph Curran Jr., is a Maryland political icon.

A tough-on-crime stance could reap rewards statewide for Gansler in the context of a sniper trial.

But if the prosecution falters, or gaps in police investigation are exposed, the campaign-trail argument that Montgomery County boasts a well-run government -- courtesy of Duncan and Gansler -- could ring hollow.

"It's a two-edged sword," Norris said. Duncan "will be able to say, 'Look what I did in Montgomery County. We manage things well.' . . . But he has to be careful so they don't look like he's taking advantage of a tragedy for political purposes."

Gansler said he will not personally try the case, but will give that duty to his deputies, Katherine Winfree and John McCarthy.

The decision frees him from being in a courtroom for weeks, or months, when he will need to be campaigning. It also provides him protection from the charge that the highest-profile prosecution in his tenure in Montgomery is rooted in his ambition to become attorney general.

"He has suffered from some criticism that he has been too much of a grandstander and that he has hogged the cameras, as it were," Gildenhorn said. "The fact that he has two very able prosecutors to handle the trial helps him rebut the argument that he is somehow trying to politicize the trial."

Some Montgomery residents and others who have questioned the need for another trial have suggested that a trial serves Duncan's and Gansler's political ends more than it does justice.

But the decision to try the case in Maryland makes sense on many levels, said Steven D. Benjamin, a Richmond defense attorney and former president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He was not critical of Maryland authorities for wanting their own trial in the sniper case.

"The process can be as important as the result, to the public and to the victims. To everyone," Benjamin said. "Justice is the fair and reliable determination of guilt or innocence. This may be a case, for the residents of Maryland, where the process is as important as the result. Maybe it's more important than the result, that they go through the process of a criminal trial."

Staff writer Tom Jackman contributed to this report.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company