Federal investigators are planning to brief Attorney General John D. Ashcroft as early as today on the sniper investigation, and law enforcement sources anticipate that Ashcroft could decide by Thursday where the first case against the suspects would be tried.
The briefing will include detailed information about potential evidence against John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, in various jurisdictions. Muhammad and Malvo are accused of killing 10 and wounding four in a month of terror in the Washington region. They also are suspects in killings in Montgomery, Ala., Baton Rouge, La., and Tacoma, Wash.
While some sources with knowledge of the legal strategies being discussed said there is a strong push for the first case to be tried in the D.C. area, others noted that Alabama was becoming an increasingly attractive choice.
The law enforcement sources said the Justice Department wants to ensure that the first case provides a clear prosecution victory -- both in verdict and punishment. They said the capital punishment laws in Alabama coupled with strong evidence in the Sept. 21 shooting outside a Montgomery liquor store are pushing that case up the list.
Unlike investigators probing many of the shootings in Maryland, the District and Virginia, investigators in Alabama have witnesses and fingerprints linking Muhammad and Malvo to that attack. Ballistics evidence has linked the bullet that killed the liquor store manager to the rifle found in Muhammad's car when the two were arrested Oct. 24.
Still, there is some confusion in that case. Witnesses say they saw Muhammad with a handgun, not a rifle, and the possibility of a third suspect has been raised. But in Alabama, prosecutors do not have to prove who fired the fatal shot in a death penalty case. And Alabama, unlike Maryland and the federal courts, allows the execution of juveniles.
As prosecutors continued to gather evidence to present to Ashcroft -- who will make the decision because Muhammad and Malvo are in federal custody -- Malvo went before a federal magistrate judge in Baltimore and was ordered detained, his attorney said.
The hearing was held in secret after a federal judge in Baltimore last week declined to allow open access to it, maintaining that public interest in the case did not outweigh Malvo's right to be shielded from scrutiny as a juvenile. The motion had been made by four news organizations, including The Washington Post.
Muhammad faces a similar hearing in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt today.
In addition, police in Prince George's County are investigating whether two shootings in early September might be linked to the suspects. In one of those, a Sony laptop computer was stolen. Authorities found a similar computer in Muhammad's car during the arrest.
So far, Muhammad and Malvo have been charged in Prince William, Spotsylvania and Hanover counties in Virginia; Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland; in U.S. District Court in Maryland; in Alabama; and in Louisiana.
Prosecutors across the country have been working to assemble the best case against the suspects, and Ashcroft's decision most likely will reflect that evidence as well as the likelihood of gaining a conviction and strong punishment. Although all the jurisdictions have statutes allowing the death penalty for Muhammad, Malvo -- as a juvenile -- would be eligible for the death penalty only in Virginia, Alabama and Louisiana.
Justice Department officials hope to have a decision no later than Friday, when they face a deadline to obtain an indictment against Muhammad or hold a preliminary hearing outlining their evidence against him.
They also might be waiting for charges in Fairfax County, which, along with the District, remains the only local jurisdiction with a confirmed sniper shooting not to have filed charges.
Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said yesterday that he is awaiting evidence in the Oct. 14 fatal shooting of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, 47. A source said that Horan is expected to take the case before a grand jury this week.
Ellen Brooks, the district attorney in Montgomery County, Ala., also urged patience. "I think it's too early to make the decision," she said. "I am committed to my same tack. Let's gather the evidence, sit down with all the prosecutors, examine the evidence and the laws, and then determine the best place for these trials to take place."
A Justice Department source said a conference call is expected today or tomorrow among U.S. attorneys in Maryland, Virginia, the District, Alabama, Louisiana, Washington state and other jurisdictions where Muhammad and Malvo are suspected of crimes. The U.S. attorneys have been talking with state and local prosecutors and are expected to offer their views directly to Ashcroft.
Malvo, who is being treated as a juvenile in federal court, attended a closed 90-minute hearing yesterday in Baltimore before U.S. Magistrate Judge James K. Bredar. Malvo was ordered detained and the records in his case were sealed, said his attorney, Joshua R. Treem.
On Saturday, investigators from Maryland, Virginia and the District met with federal officials to sum up the evidence in each local sniper case. They are awaiting several forensic reports, including those on the evidence seized from Muhammad's car.
"We're really interested in seeing the laptop" and the Global Positioning System device, one local investigator said, referring to two items found in the 1990 Chevrolet Caprice that authorities believe Muhammad and Malvo modified to allow them to shoot their victims undetected from the trunk. "We're hoping that will bear fruit, and it looks promising."
Investigators are trying to find any connections between the suspects and other shootings across the country.
Yesterday, police in Prince George's said that they are examining a pair of robbery-shootings Sept. 5 and Sept. 15 that they believe might be linked to Muhammad and Malvo.
The shootings, outside a pizzeria on Stuart Lane in Clinton and at a liquor store on Brandywine Road about six miles away, differed from the sniper shootings in that the victims were shot several times at close range and then robbed. Sources said those shootings have been linked to each other by ballistics evidence showing that the same .22-caliber weapon was used.
Police knew that the two shootings were related, but they did not begin investigating a link to Muhammad and Malvo until after the pair's arrests. The Sept. 5 shooting took place in the neighborhood where Muhammad's ex-wife lives.
Cpl. Diane Richardson, a police spokeswoman, said that the sniper task force has expressed interest in those two shootings and that evidence has been given to task force investigators.
Police said that the Sept. 5 shooting, outside Margellina's Pizzeria in the 9000 block of Stuart Lane, took place about 10:20 p.m.
Paul LaRuffa, 55, had just finished closing his shop and had tossed his leather bag with the day's receipts and his Sony laptop into the back of his car. After climbing into the driver's seat, LaRuffa saw a towering, frenzied shadow. Then there was a flash of light, the sound of glass breaking and several loud pops.
"When the noise stopped, I looked down, and I was still alive. I was breathing, but I knew I had been shot . . . ," said LaRuffa, who was shot in the arm, hand, stomach and back and twice in the chest but has since returned to work. "It probably took 15 seconds, but in that second after the shooting, [the assailant] opened the back door and took my bag with the money and my computer and ran into the woods."
Montgomery County police Capt. Nancy Demme said investigators have not determined whether the laptop found in Muhammad's car was stolen from LaRuffa. Demme said that the computer's serial number had been obliterated and that police are looking through files to see whether they can trace its ownership.
About 10 p.m. Sept. 15, Muhammad Rashid, 32, was shot once in the abdomen outside Brandywine Liquor. Rashid said he was closing the store when a man shot him from about three feet away. The man then rifled through his pockets and took his wallet.
Minutes before the shooting, Rashid said, he saw a large, dark-colored domestic car behind the store.
Staff writers Patricia Davis, Maria Glod, Allan Lengel, Phuong Ly, Katherine Shaver and Jamie Stockwell contributed to this report.