Ashcroft told a news conference as law enforcement officials from around the Washington region looked on, ”We believe the first prosecutions should occur in those jurisdictions that provide the best law, the best facts and the best range of penalties.”
The move means the federal charges earlier levied against the sniper suspects will be at least temporarily deferred until after the Virginia prosecution is complete.
Ashcroft said that 41-year-old John Allen Muhammad would be tried in Prince William County, Virginia while 17-year-old John Lee Malvo would be tried separately in Fairfax Country, Virginia. The two were arrested two weeks ago after a string of shootings last month in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. left 10 dead and another three wounded.
In addition to capital murder charges, Muhammad and Malvo are charged under two new Virginia statutes, both of which carry the death penalty: a post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism law and a law permitting capital punishment for killing more than one person within three years. Under the new terrorism law, prosecutors would not have to prove which defendant was the actual shooter in order for both to receive a death penalty sentence if convicted.
Virginia has been one of the leading states to carry out the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the practice in 1976. In contrast, Maryland has imposed a moratorium on executions based on the call for a review of the fairness of the state’s system of levying the punishment.
During his news conference, Ashcroft said that Malvo, who he referred to as “the juvenile,” could receive the death penalty in Virginia if convicted as an adult. Maryland laws prohibit the death penalty in cases involving juveniles under age 18.
“It is appropriate, it is imperative that the ultimate sanction be available for those who committed these crimes,” Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft said he could not say when the trials would occur or whether the two men would be tried simultaneously.
Since their arrests, Muhammad and Malvo have been charged with shootings in two other states, including the killing of a liquor store clerk in Montgomery, Alabama and the fatal shooting of a Louisiana woman outside her beauty supply store in Baton Rouge.
“We will continue to work with federal, state and local officials to gather evidence and follow facts wherever they lead, to determine the full extent of the criminal activity,” Ashcroft said of the ongoing investigation.
The two men have been transferred from a maximum-security facility in Baltimore to an Alexandria City jail by U.S. marshals.