Sniper Suspect Appears in Va. Court

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

Shackled, unshaven and unkempt, John Allen Muhammad made his first appearance in Virginia state court Friday, and a judge told the sniper suspect he would appoint a lawyer for him.

An initial court appearance was set for 17-year-old co-defendant John Lee Malvo later in the day. The two could face the death penalty.

The hearings come a day after the two were transferred from Maryland, where they were arrested last month, to Virginia. Federal authorities said Virginia had the strongest case and best route to the ``ultimate sanction.''

In Prince William County, Muhammad was charged with the Oct. 9 slaying of Dean Meyers, 53, who was shot while pumping gas in Manassas.

Shackled at the legs and wearing an orange jail suit, Muhammad stood up during Friday's five-minute hearing when the judge read the charges: two counts of capital murder and one count each of conspiracy to commit murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

Circuit Court Judge Herman A. Whisenant Jr. asked Muhammad if he wanted a court-appointed lawyer.

``I thought I already had counsel,'' Muhammad replied in a controlled and deliberate manner, referring to a lawyer appointed earlier by the federal court.

The judge explained that Muhammad didn't have a lawyer to face the Virginia charges and again asked him if he wanted one appointed. Muhammad responded, ``I don't know what to say, sir.''

The judge said he will appoint a lawyer and set another hearing for next Wednesday.

Even as Attorney General John Ashcroft announced his decision to move the case to Virginia state court, yet another crime was connected by authorities to the pair — a Sept. 21 killing in Atlanta. That brought to 18 the number of shootings linked to Muhammad, 41, and Malvo by police across the country. Thirteen people were killed.

Ashcroft said he sent the pair to Virginia in part because its laws allow the best opportunities to obtain the death penalty: The state allows execution of 17-year-olds and has put to death 86 people since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, more than any state except Texas.

``It is appropriate — it is imperative — that the ultimate sanction be available for those convicted of these crimes,'' Ashcroft said. ``We believe that the first prosecutions should occur in those jurisdictions that provide the best law, the best facts, and the best range of available penalties.''

Malvo was expected to make an appearance in Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court on Friday afternoon. Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. has said he will seek to prosecute Malvo as an adult.

Federal authorities have not mentioned Malvo by name, but said instead that a ``juvenile'' will face capital murder charges in the Oct. 14 shooting of FBI analyst Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot.

Horan and Paul Ebert, prosecutor in Prince William County, said it probably would be months before either trial begins. Both cases will go before grand juries after preliminary court hearings, they said.

``A case like this takes a lot of preparation. ... It's going to take a lot of work, a lot of time,'' Ebert said Friday.

The decision to prosecute in Virginia came as the federal government dropped extortion and firearms charges that could have led to the death penalty. Those charges can be reinstated later, though.

Muhammad's public defender in Maryland, James Wyda, denounced the federal government's decision to move him to Virginia, calling it ``clumsy, macabre forum-hopping for the cheapest and easiest way to obtain the death penalty.''

Two Virginia statutes make the sniper cases death-penalty eligible.

One provision allows capital punishment when more than one person is killed within three years. Ebert said he intended to seek the death penalty under that provision, which is applicable only to the triggerman.

The other is a new anti-terrorism law passed after Sept. 11 in which prosecutors need not prove who pulled the trigger for both defendants to get the death penalty.

Asked if there was evidence Malvo pulled the trigger in the Fairfax case, Horan said he wouldn't comment on any specifics.

Muhammad and Malvo were arrested Oct. 24 after a three-week spree of killings that terrified the nation's capital. A day after the arrests, Montgomery County, Md., prosecutor Doug Gansler filed the first murder charges, angering federal officials who wanted a collective deliberation about where to try the cases first.

Gansler argued that Maryland deserved the trials because six people were killed there. But federal officials said Maryland's death penalty laws were too weak.

Prosecutors in Alabama and Louisiana also have filed charges against Malvo and Muhammad. In addition, they are suspects in shootings in Arizona and Washington state.

Police in Atlanta on Thursday said the Sept. 21 murder of Million Waldemariam, 41, could be connected to the pair because ballistics evidence matched a .22-caliber handgun recovered near the Alabama killing. Waldemariam, an Ethiopian immigrant, was killed outside the Atlanta liquor store where he worked.

The motive for the killing spree remains uncertain, but Muhammad's ex-wife, Mildred Muhammad, who lives in the Washington suburb of Clinton, Md., said her former husband's chief purpose in coming to the area was to kill her. The two had separated in 2000 and later had a custody dispute.

``I'm sure he had me in his scope,'' she said in an interview with The Washington Post on Friday. ``This was an elaborate plan to make this look like I was a victim so he could come in as the grieving father and take the children.''

Also Friday, The New York Times reported that a laptop computer seized from Muhammad's car after his arrest contained a ``virtual diary'' of the suspects' travels and provides strong evidence against the men. The laptop was stolen Sept. 5 in a robbery-shooting outside a pizzeria in Prince George's County, Md., authorities said.


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