When John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo were charged in connection with the sniper attacks in four states in recent weeks, U.S. Attorney Roscoe C. Howard Jr. found himself in an uncomfortable spotlight.
The D.C. police chief and a city council member -- pointing to the other jurisdictions -- publicly chastised the District's top prosecutor for waiting to file charges in the sniper slaying of a 72-year-old man on Georgia Avenue, insisting that the prosecution had sufficient evidence -- including solid ballistic tests.
"He feels that he wants to take more time or whatever, and as a prosecutor, that's his right," said D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. "I just feel it's uncalled for and unnecessary."
Howard, who tried to stay out of the fray, eventually shot back that police needed to interview more witnesses and gather more evidence in the Oct. 3 slaying of Pascal Charlot.
"There's still a lot of information out there that we need to get a handle on," he said. "We don't look to other jurisdictions to dictate our timetable, and we don't look to political pressure or media attention to dictate our timetable."
The rare public jostling between a U.S. attorney and a top law enforcement official who depends on him to prosecute cases raised the profile of Howard, who was appointed by President Bush 14 months ago to head the nation's largest U.S. Attorney's Office.
Besides the sniper slaying, the job has thrown him into noteworthy cases, including the anthrax killings, the Chandra Levy homicide, the Colombian nationals accused of killing an American oil worker in Ecuador and the fatal bombing at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in which five Americans were killed.
Howard, who claims no political affiliation, is the first federal prosecutor here in eight years to have been appointed by Republicans. He follows the populist Democrat Eric Holder, who went on to become deputy attorney general before moving into private practice, and Wilma Lewis, who also is in private practice.
In recent years, some of the bigger national and international cases -- particularly in the areas of terrorism and major corporate fraud -- have gone to the U.S. attorney's offices in Northern Virginia or New York.
But Howard said his aim is to have "one of the premier offices" in the nation, one that will take on more significant federal cases without compromising local prosecutions. His office has added seven prosecutors to handle terrorist cases, and he employs former Security and Exchange Commission lawyers familiar with the growing world of corporate fraud.
He said his office, which has about 345 lawyers, is well equipped to handle securities fraud cases. "We're local, we're here. You don't have to get on a plane. We can try them as well as anybody else," Howard said.
The dual role of the District's U.S. attorney -- handling federal and local criminal cases -- is a longstanding but controversial arrangement. Residents voted overwhelmingly last week to split the office, with local crimes being handled by an elected prosecutor. Proponents say the prosecutor would be more responsive to voters.
But the vote was advisory, and Congress must approve such a change.
D.C. Council member David A. Catania (R-At Large) led the charge for change. "This is an important element in the continuing struggle for increased local autonomy and democracy in the District," he said.
Howard doesn't see the need. "I've said it before, it is a solution looking for a problem," he said. "There's clearly no problem."
Since taking office, Howard has reorganized, shifting some prosecutors to different divisions. He says he wants to spread around the seasoned prosecutors and give less experienced ones an opportunity to practice in U.S. District Court, which handles some of the more complicated cases. Others in the office say he also had concerns about the productivity of some prosecutors.
Some in the staff have applauded his changes. But others are miffed, complaining that their experience is not being put to good use. One veteran prosecutor filed an age discrimination complaint after he was transferred from U.S. District Court to Superior Court.
Howard declined to comment on specific cases, saying: "When you make changes, you're not going to make everybody happy."
Colleagues describe him as affable and even-tempered, someone with a self-deprecating humor.
The latter was evident when a photographer was shooting his picture at his office. "I'll pay you good money if you can take a picture of Michael Jordan and superimpose it . . . or Billy Dee Williams."
He's also described as someone who takes a keen interest in cases but delegates authority.
"He's not a micromanager. He has put into place very experienced managers, and he expects them to do the job," said Channing Phillips, the office spokesman who also acts as general counsel to Howard.
"I think he's made some huge strides" in improving the office, said Scott Fredericksen, another counsel. "He's brought on some incredibly talented people."
Van Harp, who heads the FBI Washington field office, said: "I think Roscoe is one of the most enthusiastic, energetic and capable U.S. attorneys that I've had the good fortune to work with. He's right on the front end, and he makes sure investigations proceed in the right direction and the right way."
So far, listed among the office's successes is the conviction of Joseph Mesa Jr. in the double murders at Gallaudet University and the guilty plea of Ana Belen Montes, an employee of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency who spied for Cuba from 1985 to 2001.
But Howard continues to face the same criticism as his predecessors. Some D.C. police officers lament that the office is not aggressive enough about filing charges in homicides, and in particular, the sniper case.
"If we can't get charges in the sniper case, you can imagine the problems we have in other cases," Ramsey said last week. "Sometimes the issue is [D.C. police] as to why charges aren't approved, but sometimes it rests with the U.S. attorney."
Howard deflects such criticism, saying: "We're as aggressive as we can be." He said sometime police want charges filed before all the necessary information is gathered.
"We just don't file cases," he said. "We're not a group that takes marginal cases that can't be proven. When we indict a case, we say, 'We're ready for trial today.' "
Howard's parents were professors at Virginia State University, a historically black college in Petersburg. Growing up in Virginia in the 1960s, he was on the front lines of integration. He attended a segregated elementary school, but in 1965 his high school was integrated.
"There were riots and fights," he said of his freshman year. "It was not a good learning environment."
Did he get into any confrontations?
"For the record, no," he said, then smiled and added, "I think we all did. I think it was kind of hard not to. Everybody had their little pushing and shoving stuff. It was a hard time, a difficult time. All those things influence you, but I'm not bitter about it. There was no person or thing I can point to as specifically traumatic."
On the football team as a freshman, he played nose tackle. His grades were very good, "but my parents thought it best I get my education elsewhere," he said.
He went to Culver Military Academy near South Bend, Ind., alma mater of the late movie critic Gene Siskel, Yankees baseball owner George Steinbrenner and actor Hal Holbrook.
"I thought it was scary as heck," he said. "I was 15 years old."
"Culver instilled a lot of discipline. I thought it was an interesting place," he said, but he lost something, too. "Your parents don't get to see you play football. You don't get to come home and tell stories about what happened in class. That's a little bit disorienting."
He graduated from Culver in 1970, went to Brown University and then received his law degree from the University of Virginia Law School, where he met his future wife, Deborah Ryan. They have two children, Ryan, 14, and Adam, 12.
After graduating in 1977, he clerked for the Territorial Court in the Virgin Islands and later worked for the Federal Trade Commission. In 1984, he became an assistant prosecutor in the office he now heads.
"He was always aggressive, enthusiastic," said Dan Seikaly, chief of the U.S. Attorney's Office's criminal division, who worked with Howard at the time. "He's the kind of guy the cops like, the defense attorneys like and even the defendants like. He was always upfront, straight. You could trust him, so you could deal with him."
During his tenure, Howard said he didn't take on any big-name cases, but he prosecuted "a lot of narcotics guys, a lot of street robberies, repeat offenders."
In 1987, he went to work for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of Virginia, where his successes included the conviction of Samuel Balbuena, one of the biggest drug dealers in the Washington area.
In 1991, while working as a federal prosecutor in Richmond, he was asked to join the U.S. Office of Independent Counsel to investigate suspicious financial transactions involving the Reagan administration's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Samuel R. Pierce Jr., and his associates.
"I jumped at it," said Howard, who moved his wife and two small children to Washington several weeks after the call.
Soon enough, Howard learned the pitfalls of pursuing presidential appointees.
"Most of these people made their lives convincing people they were wonderful," he said. "You had people who had power, and they really didn't understand the power wasn't theirs. And because of the connections to the president, they were just very, very hard cases to bring. People were willing to fall on the sword for them."
The results were mixed, Howard said. Some of Pierce's underlings and associates were convicted, but Pierce was never charged.
Howard went on to teach law at the University of Kansas before rejoining the independent counsel's office in 1997 to prosecute Agriculture Secretary Michael Espy and his associates. Some associates were convicted. He left before the Espy trial, which resulted in an acquittal.
As an African American, Howard said he was keenly aware that not everyone in the black community approved of his office going after high-profile black public figures such as Pierce and Espy, but he said he thought: "I can't let them walk because they're black."
He returned to the University of Kansas, where he taught until his appointment by Bush.
As U.S. attorney, Howard faces some tough challenges. For one, the anthrax cases continues to baffle authorities.
"Right now, we don't have the answer," he said. "Everybody would like to wrap this up in a 50-minute segment as if it were 'Murder, She Wrote'. You have to be patient."