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Look at Legal Side to Today's Sniper Arrests

Aired October 24, 2002 - 14:54   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's going to be a fascinating legal development.
And for that I want to bring in our legal analyst, Miles, Jeffrey Toobin, who is going to walk us through the maze of some of the legal steps that we can anticipate, not only in the days and weeks ahead, but in the immediate minutes and hours ahead.

What is happening as far as you can tell, Jeff, right now?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Let's start with the easy part about what's going to go on right this afternoon. The suspects have been arrested since last night. Usually within 24 hours, they need to be arraigned. And they are going to be arraigned on federal complaints. They are going to be in federal court in Baltimore. According to your conversations with Kelli Arena, there are going to be federal gun charges that are preexisting, I believe, against John Muhammad. And John Malvo, the younger person, is going to be arraigned as a material witness.

These are very clearly initial charges. They are not -- I don't think they are going to wind up being only charged with this. But the question that will be dealt with today is simply the question of bail. And I don't think I'm going out on much of a limb here by saying there is no chance these two guys are going to get out on bail. So basically, what's going to happen today is they will enter initial pleas of not guilty, certainly, they'll be assigned lawyers, and then a 30-day clock will start running. And it's by the end those 30 days the federal government or some other government -- and that's where things start to get complicated -- will have to bring more formal charges against them.

BLITZER: And there's going to be, I think it's fair to say, Jeffrey, a competition between local, state and federal authorities who is going to get eventual -- who is eventually going to be in charge of prosecuting these two suspects.

TOOBIN: Well, Wolf, when I was a prosecutor we sometimes used to joke somewhat ruefully that we fought other prosecutors in other jurisdictions sometimes harder than we fought the bad guys. At least that's what we worried about. Because there often are turf battles among prosecutors.

Here you have a very -- you have really a three-way situation. You have the federal government. Obviously, they have the most resources; they usually win turf battles. What's odd about this case is that -- it's not really odd, but just because of the nature of the case -- it's a murder case, and murder is usually prosecuted at the state level, not at the federal level. So it will be interesting to see if federal prosecutors can construct a case so that the whole crime winds up in federal court.

Then you have Maryland and Virginia. Both states had murders in them. Both have very legitimate claims to prosecuting this case. The way the turf battles work is you'll see prosecutors from both sides saying, No, we have the better case, we have a stronger case in Montgomery County. Those are the good cases; we should bring that first. Or the prosecutors in Virginia will say, No, the case in Richmond is really the best case; let's bring that case first.

What will be an important background in that turf battle is that Maryland is in the middle of a moratorium on the death penalty. The governor there has said we are not executing anyone until we have learned whether we are performing adequate due process, whether we are giving all people accused of the death penalty a fair shake. In Virginia, Virginia has a very active death penalty operation. Lots of people are executed there. They rank among the highest states. That is surely, if in fact these charges proceed, will be an argument both sides will make.

BLITZER: And the federal -- all of our viewers will remember briefly, Jeffrey, that Timothy McVeigh when the Timothy McVeigh Oklahoma City bombing case -- death penalty involved -- federal prosecution. So there are precedents for the federal prosecutors taking charge of a murder case.

TOOBIN: Absolutely. And there is a federal death penalty law. It's worth noting, though, that there have only been two executions under the federal death penalty law. The federal death penalty really came back in the mid '90s, and McVeigh and one other person are the only people who have been executed so far. There are a couple dozen people, I believe on federal death row, but it is not a fast-moving process, and certainly, in Virginia, a state with much smaller jurisdiction than the federal government, has executed a lot more people than the U.S. government has.

BLITZER: I think it's fair to say, Jeffrey, there will be a jump ball. A lot of people will be jumping to see who is going to catch it. We'll be covering it and watching it together with you throughout this legal process, which is only just beginning.


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