Snipers to be prosecuted under new terrorism law in Virginia

Friday, November 29, 2002

MANASSAS, Va. -- When the Virginia Legislature passed a bill this year authorizing the death penalty for acts of terrorism, lawmakers hoped their work would be a mere precaution that never had to be implemented.

But just three months after its enactment, sniper suspects John Lee Malvo and John Allen Muhammad are being prosecuted under the new law.

"We envisioned Osama bin Laden. But what we're talking about in the sniper case is definitely terrorism," said the law's chief sponsor, state Delegate David Albo.

Experts say the public terror created by the three-week series of shootings and the sniper's demands for a $10 million ransom make the law an easy fit.

In fact, the law is one of the reasons U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft sent the pair to Virginia for prosecution, giving the state precedence over Maryland.

The anti-terrorism law is untested, however, and will almost certainly be challenged on constitutional grounds.

Albo said a crime like the sniper case was the last thing on his mind as he shepherded his bill through the Legislature.

"This is something we thought we would put in place and hope it never gets used," Albo said. "Unfortunately, 2 1/2 months after the bill became law, that definition of terrorism fit the sniper case like a glove."

The bill passed with little opposition.

The law defines an act of terrorism as a crime committed with "the intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or influence the policy, conduct or activities of the government ... through intimidation or coercion."

Muhammad, 41, and Malvo, 17, have been accused of shooting 18 people -- killing 13 and wounding five -- in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. No one was hit in another shooting, in which a bullet went through a craft store window.

While the defendants' lawyers have been largely silent about their strategies, University of Richmond law Professor Ronald Bacigal said it's a certainty they will challenge the terrorism law's constitutionality.

"The argument will be that it's overly broad and vague," Bacigal said. "

You could argue that anybody going on a crime spree could be intimidating the population."

Winning such an argument will be a difficult task, said Bacigal and other legal experts.

Bacigal said the sniper case "sure looks like it fits perfectly with that definition" in the law, citing the public terror and the demands for a $10 million ransom.

"This is about as weak a case as you could use to challenge the law," Bacigal said.

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