AS HE WEIGHED IN Tuesday with federal charges against sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft left no doubt about his motivation. He wants to be sure the death penalty can be imposed for the shootings that terrorized the region. "You know, there are already people who are saying that they don't think the ultimate penalties ought to be available, whether they are editorialists or others who don't believe in the death penalty. I believe that the ultimate sanction ought to be available here," he told reporters. In fact it has mainly been death penalty enthusiasts, such as the attorney general, who have rushed in recent days to preempt judge and jury and provide for an execution -- of Mr. Muhammad, and possibly of a juvenile, John Lee Malvo -- before there has been a trial. Not only is their haste unseemly, but their legal priorities are wrong.

We have heard them say that Montgomery County should not be the venue for the first trial because the death penalty is not available for juveniles in Maryland. We have heard that Virginia should go first because that state has shown a clear willingness to execute murderers, including those who committed their crimes before they reached adulthood. It is said to be a plus that Virginia has a new anti-terrorism law that would allow convictions without requiring prosecutors to prove who pulled the trigger -- and a minus that the new law hasn't been tested and might be vulnerable to challenge. Almost the entire focus of the Justice Department and of state prosecutors has been on who could move most quickly to impose the ultimate penalty.

With the community still reeling from three weeks of terror and victims' families and friends struggling with grievous loss, the desire for justice is strong and the wish for punishment understandable. Local prosecutors have a duty to represent their communities' interests, including the public's desire to see appropriate punishment meted out for these heinous crimes. But it is critical, particularly when passions run so high, to proceed with care. There is much we still don't know about the shootings and about the two people who are accused of committing them. We don't know how each attack came about or who pulled the trigger. We don't know who was present in each instance. The relationship between 41-year-old John Allen Muhammad and 17-year-old John Lee Malvo remains mysterious, leaving open vital questions about the youth's actions and level of responsibility.

These are the kinds of questions that need to be answered in a full and fair trial. There has been nothing to suggest that Montgomery County can't provide that, and plenty to argue that the county, which suffered the largest number of victims, should take the lead in prosecuting the crimes. If a jury eventually were to deem the death penalty appropriate, Maryland has one -- and trying the case there won't preempt later action by authorities in Virginia or elsewhere. Mr. Ashcroft's department, in the meantime, can serve best by assisting local prosecutors, not stepping in front of them.