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Maryland, Louisiana readying plans to try Muhammad

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

ROCKVILLE, Md. -- Prosecutors in Maryland and Louisiana want a crack at sniper mastermind John Allen Muhammad even though he has already been condemned to die in Virginia, raising questions of whether pursuing justice everywhere is worth the cost.

Prosecutors say that convictions in more than one jurisdiction are insurance against reversals on appeal, and that trials give comfort to victims and their families.

Victims' families "desperately want to have their day in court," said Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler, who aims to try Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo on murder charges in Maryland, and to seek the death penalty for Muhammad. Malvo is exempt from capital punishment in Maryland because he was 17 at the time of the crimes.

But others, including some of Muhammad's victims, say justice was served once and for all by his Nov. 17 conviction for the murder of Dean H. Meyers and the jury's recommendation Monday that Muhammad be executed for the crime.

"It would be nice to hear that he was convicted for Lori's murder, also, but to hear that he is convicted and sentenced to death will do," said Marion Lewis, father of victim Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, who was shot at a gas station in Maryland six days before Meyers' slaying.

Lewis-Rivera was among six people whose slayings in Montgomery County were linked by ballistic and other evidence to Muhammad and Malvo, according to police. The pair are also suspects in seven slayings in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia and the District of Columbia, and in seven other shootings.

Feb. 12 sentencing

The venue for Muhammad's next trial, if there is one, will not be decided until after his Feb. 12 sentencing, said Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner. Once sentenced, Muhammad will become a ward of the state, giving the Virginia governor authority over his whereabouts.

Malvo is on trial in Chesapeake, Va., in the slaying of FBI analyst Linda Franklin.

The cost to taxpayers of a big murder case can be high. Muhammad and Malvo's public defenders racked up nearly $900,000 in fees and expenses in the year before their trials. The combined legal expenses in the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 1997 totaled $96 million, according to government records.

"It would be very expensive, it would be tough emotionally on the witnesses, and the logistics could be nightmarish," said Douglas Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.

Gansler would not speculate on the expense of trying even one of the sniper defendants, but said a successful death penalty prosecution saves taxpayers money in the long run over the cost of incarceration -- and gives the victims and community a sense of relief.

"Part of a criminal process, part of a criminal trial, is the healing process of the community -- not just for the victims of the crimes, but in this case, the whole community that was in some sense victimized by this case," Gansler said.

Other officials are divided on the issue.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich expressed support Tuesday for trying Muhammad in Maryland for what he described as "obviously a case of domestic terrorism."

Baton Rouge, La., prosecutor John Sinquefield said he intends to seek the death penalty against Muhammad and Malvo. And the chief federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., which does not have the death penalty, has said he plans to bring the pair to trial there.

The Montgomery County, Ala., prosecutor's office said it still wants to try Muhammad and Malvo on capital murder charges, but Police Chief John Wilson said bringing them there would be "a tremendous expense."

The pair have not yet been indicted in Atlanta, where District Attorney Paul Howard is awaiting the outcomes of other trials before deciding whether to prosecute them.

"It may not be necessary to go through the expense and difficulty and time involved in a trial if they've already been convicted and sentenced to death in other jurisdictions," spokesman Erik Friedly said.

Paul J. LaRuffa, a Maryland restaurateur who was wounded in a shooting linked to the snipers, said his justice came when Muhammad was convicted. LaRuffa said he is not sure whether Gansler wants a trial for the sniper victims or for himself.

"Lawyers fight and you really wonder how much of that is ego and how much of that is in the pursuit of justice," LaRuffa said.


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