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Evidence shows teen was triggerman in most of sniper shootings

Monday, December 23, 2002

CENTREVILLE, Va. -- Evidence in the Washington-area sniper shootings case points to teenager John Lee Malvo as the triggerman in most-- if not all -- of the shootings, according to a published report Sunday.

That could complicate prosecutors' efforts to get a death sentence for the older suspect, John Muhammad.

"There is not much pointing to Muhammad, and that is going to make it really hard to show that he was the triggerman," one senior law enforcement official involved in the case told The New York Times. "There are other ways to attempt to obtain a death sentence, but this lack of evidence has been one of the most perplexing things about the case."

Muhammad, 41, and Malvo, 17, are charged with capital murder and could face the death penalty if convicted. Prosecutors say they are responsible for 13 shootings over a three-week period in October that left 10 dead and three wounded in Maryland, Virginia and Washington. They also are suspected in attacks in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Washington state.

Prosecutors, defense lawyers and police involved in the case in Virginia did not immediately return phone calls Sunday seeking comment.

Under gag order

Fairfax County police are under a gag order prohibiting them from publicly disclosing nearly all aspects of their investigation. It was imposed last week after The Washington Post cited anonymous sources saying Malvo had confessed to being the triggerman in some of the shootings.

"It is remarkable, that even after one court has entered a permanent injunction against such leaks of information, that law enforcement personnel cannot retrain themselves to not leak information," Muhammad's lawyer, Peter Greenspun, told The Associated Press on Sunday.

"This story only further demonstrates how easy it is to come to conclusions on speculation and innuendo versus facts," Greenspun said.

The Times reported Sunday that the evidence against Malvo includes:

His own admissions to the slayings of Linda Franklin in Falls Church, Va., on Oct. 14 and Dean Harold Meyers in Manassas, Va., on Oct. 9, and to one in Maryland.

Hair linked by DNA to Malvo in the trunk of the car police believe was used as a sniper's nest.

Malvo's fingerprints found on paper near where investigators believe the shot was fired that wounded a middle school student in Bowie, Md., on Oct. 7.

Saliva found on a grape stem on a hill where investigators believe the shot was fired that killed bus driver Conrad Johnson in Aspen Hill, Md., on Oct. 22.

The Justice Department arranged to have the suspects tried first in Virginia, rather than in Maryland or Washington, largely because death sentences could be obtained more easily against both in Virginia.

A new anti-terrorism law passed in Virginia after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks makes the death penalty possible for criminal masterminds who plan an attack but don't actually carry it out. Also, Malvo and Muhammad are charged under a more traditional death penalty statute. Unlike Maryland and the District of Columbia, Virginia allows for the death penalty in murders committed by some as young as 17.

While the terrorism law makes it easier to obtain the death penalty against a person who is not the triggerman, it is also a new, untested law that will likely be challenged on constitutional grounds.

The other statute allows for the death penalty when a person commits more than one murder in a three-year period. That statute is unlikely to face a constitutional challenge, but generally only the triggerman can receive the death penalty under that law.

Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert has said a death penalty could be obtained if the evidence overwhelmingly shows that the person who didn't pull the trigger was so thoroughly involved in the planning and execution of the crime that his involvement was equivalent to carrying it out.


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