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Federal Charges Against Both Sniper Suspects Dismissed

Aired November 7, 2002 - 12:33   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Kelli Arena standing by right now. She's got some more information -- Kelli.
KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, our sources tell us that both John Lee Malvo and John Allen Muhammad, the alleged snipers, have been transferred to a jail in Alexandria. It's the same jail where accused terrorist Zacarias Moussouai is being housed. We're also told sources have indicated to us that in terms of which jurisdiction would get to go first to trial in this case. We're told that there has actually been a split here, that Malvo would face charges in Fairfax County, and that Muhammad would face charges in Prince William county, that for some reason, the government has decided to release the two individuals to different county custody for trials to take place in separate counties.

Why that is, we're still trying to find out, Wolf. We are expecting some official word from the Justice Department later on today. But I can tell you that both individuals have been transferred from federal custody to state custody. They are both being housed in the Alexandria jail, right across from the courthouse. You can see it. And that is where, just for some perspective from our viewers, that's where Zacarias Moussouai is being held. It's a high security prison, Wolf.

BLITZER: Presumably, Kelli, I want to be very precise, meticulous on this, presumably, Fairfax County in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington D.C., might be eligible to go first in prosecuting these suspects?

ARENA: In prosecuting Malvo. Fairfax would go first with John Lee Malvo; Prince William County would go with John Allen Muhammad.

BLITZER: And that's significant because Malvo is 17 years old. In Virginia, a 17-year-old can be executed for a crime at the age of 17.

ARENA: That's exactly right. And we've heard all along from the attorney general that one of his main considerations was that both these individuals would be able to face what he called the ultimate penalty for the alleged acts that they committed, and, of course, that meaning the death penalty. He has said that repeatedly. Of course, all along, our sources have been telling us that Virginia, which was the best venue for that to occur.

So like I said, we're -- this is -- we're all working -- nothing official yet from the Justice Department. This is all according to our sources, there is indication that they've gotten, that it will be separate, that it will involve both Fairfax and Prince William, and that that exchange has already taken place. And they're now sitting over in Alexandria, Virginia.

BLITZER: So does that mean, as we see on the bottom of the screen, that federal charges against the suspects would, in fact, be dismissed in order to let the state of Virginia go first?

ARENA: For now. For now.

BLITZER: But the federal charges could be brought back at a later point at any time?

ARENA: Right now, it looks like the complaint was dropped. Because you know that the federal charges were never filed. It was a federal complaint that was filed. An actual indictment had never been announced.

So for right now, it looks like that complaint that only involved the Maryland shootings has been dropped, that the two individuals that have been in federal custody all along, have now been transferred to state custody in Virginia, and as far as jurisdictions go, in terms who gets to bring this case to trial first, it looks you'll get two shots here, one in Prince William, one in Fairfax. Each of them gets one of the suspects.

BLITZER: As far as I know, Virginia law, and you have been looking closely at this, Kelli, as well. In Virginia, in order to get the death penalty, you have to prove one of two things under two separate statutes. One, that the alleged killer actually pulled the trigger. You need that evidence. But barring that, there's a terrorism law that was enacted after 9/11, which is -- gives the prosecution much more leeway in seeking the death penalty.

ARENA: That exactly right, under the new terrorism statute in Virginia, which is untested to this point, you don't have to be the trigger man, but you have to be involved in directing the shooting or the killing.

So the way it was described to me, by one prosecutor, was that let's say you have one person holding the weapon, and another person next to him saying, OK, it's all clear, now, shoot now, and then the shot is fired. Well, then that person did play a role in directing the shooting of another individual. So they could also face the death penalty.

BLITZER: And I'm just speculating here, and correct me if you think I'm going off on a tangent. But if they're dividing these two guys into two different counties, two different jurisdictions in Virginia, one for Fairfax, one for Prince William County, could I assume they have evidence that Malvo, for example, in Fairfax County actually pulled the trigger, but Muhammad, in Prince William County, pulled the trigger there?

ARENA: That would be the speculation at this point, Wolf? We don't exactly know what evidence they do have. But all along, the attorney general has said that the choice that would be made in terms of where these individuals would first be tried would be fact-driven, would be evidence-driven. We know that the attorney general met two days in a row with FBI director Robert Mueller to discuss the evidence that has been gathered in this case.

And Ashcroft has said all along, look, let me see what we've got here, where we have the strongest case, and then we will proceed.

So what we can assume is, obviously, whatever evidence they have in each county is stronger against each of those individuals. What exactly it is, though, we just don't know, Wolf. And we just have to wait until we get that, either solidly from a source or officially from the Justice Department.

BLITZER: What we do know is that there will be disappointed prosecutors in Maryland, who had been hoping that they would get first chance to prosecute, specifically, Doug Gansler from Montgomery County.

ARENA: And we've heard that very publicly, Wolf, all along, that they said, look, that the bulk of the shootings took place in Maryland, in Montgomery County. You know, we've heard from prosecutors there, look, you know, it's only fair it should happen here. But again, the main consideration, Wolf, all along has been that death penalty.

BLITZER: In Maryland, the 17-year-old would not be eligible. And even the 41-year-old John Muhammad, the prosecution would have some high hurdles in the state of Maryland, where there's a moratorium on the death penalty right now, and there have only been three executions since the ban on the death penalty was lifted by the Supreme Court in the 1970.

ARENA: That's right.

BLITZER: And John Ashcroft has made no secret, he's a strong advocate of that death penalty.

ARENA: That's true.


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