Calling the sniper shootings “an atrocity,” Attorney General John Ashcroft told reporters he thought the death penalty should be an option in this case.
“I believe the ultimate sanction ought to be available here,” Ashcroft said.
The charges, filed in Maryland, do not name the younger sniper suspect, 17-year-old John Lee Malvo. Officials are barred by federal law from discussing any charges against a juvenile. A juvenile can be charged with a federal capital offense, but federal courts cannot hand down a death sentence to a person under 18 years of age.
The question of whether federal indictments will be lodged in the case remains undecided, according to U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty. A complaint, he said, is not the same as an indictment but “just a charging document that has the effect of further holding the defendants.”
“But that charging document today would lay out some of the grounds for a federal case,” McNulty said.
On Monday, prosecutors in three Virginia counties filed capital murder charges against the pair. In Prince William County, a grand jury also charged Muhammad and Malvo with conspiracy to commit murder under a new post-Sept. 11 terrorism law. The terrorism law gives Virginia prosecutors an additional means of seeking the death penalty if the suspects elude that punishment in other trials.
Last week, Maryland filed six first-degree murder charges against the two suspects.
Meanwhile, on Monday police said they have linked the pair to two incidents in Tacoma, Washington: the murder of a woman and a shooting at a synagogue. On Feb. 16, Keenya Cook was shot in the face when she opened the door to her house. Cook was staying with her aunt, who had been a bookkeeper for Muhammad’s auto repair business and had befriended Muhammad and his then-wife Mildred and later sided with her during the couple’s divorce.
In the synagogue case, two shots were fired at Temple Beth El between May 1 and May 4. One shot struck an outer wall. The other lodged in an interior wall where religious scrolls are kept. No one was hurt in the incident.
Alabama has also brought charges against Muhammad and Malvo, charging them in a Sept. 21 killing outside a liquor store in Montgomery. It was a call to the sniper task force’s tip line in which a caller claimed responsibility for that incident that reportedly led to the identification of the two suspects.
Ashcroft told reporters the new charges do not mean the federal government will attempt to prosecute the suspects ahead of the states. Negotiations for the schedule of the trials are expected to continue between the states.
“I believe there is a great opportunity for us to cooperate to get the right results here, and I believe it will happen,” Ashcroft said. “We are not time-driven. We’re going to be fact-driven here.”
Muhammad and Malvo have remained in federal custody since their arrest last Thursday. According to police, a gun found in their car matches the bullets recovered after 11 of the sniper attacks. Ten people were killed and three others were wounded during the attacks, the first of which came Oct. 2.