A Fairfax County judge yesterday dismissed capital murder charges against convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad, ruling that Muhammad's right to a speedy trial had been violated.

The ruling by Circuit Court Judge M. Langhorne Keith cannot be appealed by prosecutors. Keith cited Virginia law requiring that a jailed defendant be brought to trial within five months. The judge said that when Fairfax authorities sent notice to the Prince William County jail in January seeking Muhammad's detention, the action constituted an arrest under Virginia law.

Although the ruling has no effect on Muhammad's death sentence stemming from an earlier case in Prince William, yesterday's decision is a severe blow to a coordinated plan by Northern Virginia prosecutors to secure a series of convictions and death sentences for Muhammad as a safety net in case his appeal is successful.

The only other pending Virginia case against Muhammad that carries the death penalty, in Spotsylvania County, could now be subject to the same challenge.

The dismissal comes under the watch of Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., the state's most experienced prosecutor. Horan maintained that the detectives and lawyers handling the sniper case had done nothing wrong and did not arrest Muhammad until after his transfer to prison in late May. He filed a motion yesterday asking Keith to reconsider.

"We think arrest is like pregnancy," Horan said. "You can't be a little bit. Either you are or you aren't. . . . The evidence was he never was arrested" in Prince William.

Yesterday's ruling does not affect murder charges pending against Muhammad in four other jurisdictions where sniper killings occurred in September and October 2002: Maryland, the District, Alabama and Louisiana. Ten people were killed and three were wounded during the series of sniper shootings in the Washington region in October 2002.

Some of the victims' families gathered yesterday in Wheaton at the dedication of a memorial to the slain victims.

"It almost makes you sick just to think about it, knowing the murders [the snipers] committed," said Glenn Brewer, uncle of James L. "Sonny" Buchanan, one of five people shot dead Oct. 3, 2002.

Nelson Rivera, whose wife, Lori Lewis Rivera, was killed about two hours after Buchanan, said: "It doesn't really make that much sense to me. They're trying to give these guys a fair trial, and what they did is fair?"

Beverly Douglas, whose nephew Conrad E. Johnson was the snipers' last victim, said: "We're okay. We're not angry. We understand that the laws must be met and that things will happen. We just know that they cannot get away."

Muhammad will not be leaving Virginia any time soon, officials noted. The Fairfax case is not formally over, pending the prosecution's motion to reconsider, and his Prince William appeal is to be argued next month. The Spotsylvania case has not begun, and Keith's ruling is not binding on any other courts. A sniper wounding in Hanover County also awaits prosecution.

Ellen Qualls, a spokeswoman for Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), said Warner will deal with the issue of whether to send Muhammad out of state after all Virginia jurisdictions have had their say.

Muhammad's attorneys, Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro, who requested the dismissal, applauded the ruling. They said it ultimately acts to preserve the rights of everyone.

Shapiro added that the defense team was "mindful, as we have always been, of the great tragedy involved in this case, the loss of life, the grieving families."

Charles Whitebread, a criminal law professor at the University of Southern California and a former University of Virginia law professor, said Keith's ruling was "absolutely right." He said it showed that the speedy trial law does not permit prosecutors to postpone cases for use as backup or insurance trials.

In Fairfax, Muhammad was charged with murder as an act of terrorism and committing more than one murder in a three-year period in the Oct. 14, 2002, slaying of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, 47, outside the Home Depot store in Seven Corners.

In addition to having a backup conviction in case the Prince William appeal was successful, Fairfax prosecutors wanted to try Muhammad before he was moved to another jurisdiction and the Fairfax case grew stale.

Franklin's husband, William "Ted" Franklin, could not be located for comment yesterday, and her daughter, Katrina Hannum, did not return a call seeking comment. Neither has spoken publicly about the case other than in testimony in last fall's trials of Muhammad and co-defendant Lee Boyd Malvo.

Malvo was convicted by Fairfax prosecutors in Linda Franklin's slaying and received a life sentence. Further prosecutions of Malvo have been postponed pending a Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the death penalty for juveniles. Malvo was 17 when the shootings occurred.

Malvo, now 19, has agreed to plead guilty later this month in Spotsylvania in the sniper slaying of Kenneth Bridges and the wounding of Caroline Seawell. Defense lawyers said Malvo would drop his appeal in the Franklin case if the Spotsylvania plea was completed.

One of Malvo's attorneys, Michael S. Arif, said yesterday's ruling would not affect Malvo's planned Oct. 26 plea.

The dismissal of the Fairfax case against Muhammad centered on a little-known 1993 Virginia Court of Appeals ruling in a Fauquier County case. In that case, an escapee from the Fauquier jail was later picked up in Hanover County on unrelated charges. The next day, Fauquier sent a teletype to Hanover asking that the escapee, Robert V. Funk, be detained for Fauquier as well.

Funk was not returned to Fauquier for nearly nine months. The appeals court ruled that Fauquier's detainer notice to Hanover constituted an arrest and that Funk should have been tried in Fauquier within five months. The court dismissed Funk's Fauquier conviction.

After Muhammad was convicted in the Prince William slaying of Dean H. Meyers, 53, he sat in the Prince William regional jail awaiting sentencing. On Jan. 6 this year, Detective Chris Flanagan faxed a copy of Muhammad's Fairfax indictment and bench warrant to the jail and also sent a police teletype. "Please use this teletype as a detainer," Flanagan messaged the jail.

But later that day, Flanagan testified at a hearing last week, he called the Prince William jailers at Horan's behest and instructed them not to arrest Muhammad. Jail officers testified that they did not arrest Muhammad but did orally notify him of the detainer.

Horan noted that after Muhammad was formally sentenced to death in March, he was shipped to death row at the prison in Sussex, not to Fairfax. In late May, Detective June Boyle traveled to the prison and served the warrant on him. His Fairfax proceedings began a month later.

Keith ruled that no formal arrest of Muhammad occurred until Boyle's trip to Sussex. But, citing the Funk case, Keith noted that defense attorneys argued that "a detainer constitutes an arrest for speedy trial purposes even if no formal arrest has been made. I agree."

The judge ruled that because the filing jurisdiction, in this case Fairfax, "can at any time obtain the subject of the detainer for trial . . . the filing of the detainer is considered an arrest in the context of the speedy trial analysis."

In the prosecution's motion to reconsider, Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh wrote that "the evidence shows clearly that Muhammad was not detained, much less arrested, on the Fairfax charges until May 2004." Morrogh also said "there simply is no such thing as a 'formal' arrest versus an informal one. 'Funk' did not create a new category of arrest in Virginia whereby one may be less than formally arrested and thereby trigger the running of the speedy trial statute."

Maj. Charles Land, the superintendent of the Prince William jail, said yesterday that he received paperwork from Spotsylvania and numerous other jurisdictions after Muhammad arrived there in November 2002.

The Spotsylvania prosecutor, William Neely, did not return a call seeking comment.

Six of the 10 fatal Washington area sniper shootings occurred in Montgomery County. State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said Maryland's speedy trial act would not apply to Muhammad "unless and until the defendant is actually in Maryland."

Gansler did not say that Montgomery should be next in line to try Muhammad.

"The epicenter of the crimes occurred in Montgomery County, the most victims occurred in Montgomery County, but Alabama has an interest in trying the defendants, as does Louisiana," Gansler said. "It's really a decision that's going to be up to Virginia, and I don't think any kind of official dialogue has begun at this point.

"It's really not about how eager I am, one way or the other" to try the case, he said. "We had six homicide victims here in Montgomery County; none of them has had their day in court. Neither has the community at large had its day in court."

Staff writers Cameron W. Barr, Jerry Markon and Michael D. Shear and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.