Let's Try the Snipers. But Where?

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Ashcroft announces that federal charges will be filed against accused sniper John Allen Muhammad

John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo, the prime suspects in the sniper attacks that left 10 dead and three wounded in the Washington, D.C. area, face murder charges in Maryland, Virginia and Alabama, and are also considered suspects in a February killing in Washington state. This week, the Justice Department filed 20 federal weapons and extortion charges against Muhammad. The same counts were levied against Malvo privately; his age prevents him from being charged or tried publicly. The big question: Where will they be tried first?

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Because the men are currently in federal custody, John Ashcroft will likely have final say over where Muhammad and Malvo will be tried first. They can be tried more than once and sentenced to death in more than one jurisdiction, but the first trial will be the newsmaker — and career-maker — while the later trials will fade into the background. The first judgment will also be the first to be carried out; a quick death sentence would render following trials moot.

The federal charges were filed under the Hobbs Act, a 1946 corruption law which forbids the use of extortion (that $10 million ransom note found after the Ashland, Virginia shooting) and the interruption of interstate commerce. Not exactly sexy stuff, but designed to ensure relatively speedy justice to alleged criminals who have the poor sense to commit their crimes without regard to state lines — and provides the death penalty for those found guilty. As a juvenile, the 17-year-old Malvo is eligible for execution only if he's found guilty in Virginia and Alabama; Maryland and federal statutes forbid the execution of minors.

While federal charges traditionally take precedence over state murder changes, some legal experts believe the states have stronger cases (multiple first degree murder counts). And many locals insist the privilege of the first trial should go to Montgomery County, Maryland, where six murder charges have been filed against Muhammad and Malvo — by far the most in a single state. "This case should be initiated in Montgomery County," Douglas Gansler, the Montgomery County state's attorney, said in an interview with the New York Times. "Our families were terrorized and paralyzed by these shootings, and they were disproportionately affected by this. But our citizens may never get their day in court."

Officials in Virginia argue that the trial should be held in their courts because the Virginia legal system will provide a speedier trial and permits the execution of both men, unlike Maryland's. Further, they say, Maryland's current moratorium on the death penalty (which will end next year) means justice may not be meted out in that state quickly enough. (Virginia, on the other hand, has executed 86 people since 1976, more than any state but Texas.) The threat of the death penalty, prosecutors argue, could make Malvo more likely to turn against Muhammad and provide key testimony against the older man, who initially talked openly to police but has not spoken since being taken into custody.