Maryland prosecutor says sniper suspects both fired shots

Monday, October 28, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Investigators suspect John Allen Muhammad and his 17-year-old protege, John Lee Malvo, each fired the high-powered rifle used in the Washington-area sniper killings, a Maryland prosecutor said Sunday.

"That's how law enforcement is viewing it," Montgomery County, Md., State's Atty. Douglas Gansler said. "That's the theory that law enforcement is investigating. But it's a continuing investigation. Who shot whom when is the subject of continuing investigation. That is the theory that they're operating under right now."

A Virginia prosecutor added "there is a possibility" that Malvo was a shooter, as well as Muhammad.

"We're going to have to wait and see what all the testing shows us," said Robert Horan, the commonwealth's attorney for Fairfax County, Va., where one slaying occurred. "One of the problems right now is that there is a great deal of this evidence that has not yet been processed and examined."

Even though politicians and prosecutors acknowledge the public is clamoring for swift justice, they caution that the case is still in the formative stages.

Gansler declined to speculate on a motive in the shootings that left 10 dead and three wounded in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.

"Motive?" he said. "You have to ask them. Any motive would be by way of explanation not by way of excuse. It wouldn't justify anything. It's more to satisfy people's curiosity."

On Friday, Montgomery County, Md., authorities filed six counts of first-degree murder charges against Muhammad and Malvo, setting off a legal wrangle to stage the first trial.

Prosecutors in Virginia's Spotsylvania, Prince William and Hanover counties, sites of four shootings, could file charges against the two as early as Monday. Muhammad and Malvo also face a murder charge in Montgomery, Ala., for the Sept. 21 killing of a liquor store employee.

The suspects are being held in a high-security federal penitentiary in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, another material witness in the sniper case made his first court appearance Sunday in Flint, Mich., and was cooperating with investigators, according to his court-appointed attorney. Nathaniel Osbourne, listed as the co-owner of the car allegedly used in the shootings, is not considered a suspect in the shootings. His lawyer said Osbourne would be transferred to Maryland as a witness in the case.

Claiming first trial

As attention shifts from the once-panicked streets of the Washington area to the courts, prosecutors are making their best case to claim the first trial.

Virginia has the broadest death penalty law. Maryland's Gov. Parris Glendening placed a moratorium on the death penalty, and the state does not execute 17-year-old offenders. There is no death penalty in the District of Columbia.

Federal prosecutors could also bring charges relating to extortion and murder in all the shooting cases. A letter demanding $10 million was left at the scene of one shooting.

Gansler said the shooting spree started and ended in Montgomery County, and that the area suffered the most deaths, six.

"Everybody wants to see that justice is served, that these two men are held accountable and that the punishment fits the crime," he said. "People have different views of that. A lot of it is outcome-driven. Who can get the death penalty quicker? Who can get the death penalty (for) the juvenile?

"Our view is the prosecution is also about the healing process for families and victims and the community," he added. "And our community was disproportionately affected in the case."

Douglas Duncan, Montgomery County's executive, said, "The prosecutors need to get together, decide what they should do and announce it to the public. It's their decision. They should look at where they have the strongest case and the severest penalties and try it there."

Virginia officials said their state is best able to handle the first case.

"I really don't care who goes first, but I think Virginia's cases should because we have the stronger penalties," Horan said. "We ought to go to the place where the evidence and forensics are the best in the interest of judicial economy, if nothing else."

In a related development, Rev. Jay DeFolco, pastor of the Catholic Church of the Assumption in Bellingham, Wash., recently learned that a man now believed to be Muhammad called the parish in early October during the shooting spree, perhaps seeking to confess and have the pastor deliver a message to authorities.

DeFolco wasn't there and the caller hung up in anger. Authorities have since traced that call to Muhammad, who eventually contacted another priest on the East Coast to reveal the link between a robbery and homicide in Montgomery, Ala., and the shooting spree.

DeFolco is pained that he wasn't there to receive the call. "This is one of those questions of `What if?'" he said. "Maybe I could have offered assistance to stop the killing sooner."

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