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News Conference on Virginia Charges Against Muhammad

Aired November 8, 2002 - 10:02   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to go live now to a press conference in Virginia, as we've been reporting here on CNN. The attorney general, John Ashcroft, has decided that Virginia is going to be the first state to get a crack at prosecuting the sniper shooters -- the alleged sniper shooters, we should say, in the Washington area.
And we're seeing now the beginning of a press conference there in Virginia. We're expecting that the two suspects are going to be making appearances in court today -- let's listen in.


PAUL EBERT, COMMONWEALTH ATTORNEY: .. say from the onset, I appreciate everybody's patience. This case, of course, is such a high-profile case, it's impossible for me to answer each and every inquiry that you might have.

I don't intend to comment on the evidence, and probably you won't be seeing much of me, other than in the courtroom, until this case is over. But I do want to say that I think that the investigative effort in this case should be applauded.

As the attorney general said yesterday, it's one of a kind. In my experience, and I've been in this business a long time, I've never seen an investigation where so many agencies cooperated. And at this juncture, we intend to continue to work with all of these agencies.

My office will work with the state prosecutors. Mr. Horan and I, who are good friends and, of course, have neighboring jurisdictions, consult daily. We will continue to work with the U.S. attorney's office, and they have been most supportive. We'll continue to work with all of those jurisdictions that are affected.

This case is going to involve a lot of work and a lot of time for all of us. Mr. Conway (ph), outstanding prosecutors, and they will be working with me in this case, as they have done so many others.

One thing about this case, the tentacles go throughout the country. And what happened elsewhere may be very material in this case. So, I think all of you can look for seeing evidence of crimes not only in this jurisdiction, but elsewhere.

As you know, the grand jury last month returned four indictments; two of those charging capital murder. One of them is a new statute, relatively new. It involves murder in the course of what has been deemed terrorism. That's an untested statute, but we believe that it applies in this case. The case will probably -- hopefully be tried within a year. From my experience, a case of this nature takes a lot of preparation. Defense counsel will have a lot of motions, and we will have undoubtedly a number of court appearances before this case actually comes to trial.

But, again, I want to thank you. And at this point in time, I'll take any questions that you might have. And bear in mind, I'm not going comment on the evidence, but I'll tell you, if you ask such a question, I'll tell you I won't be able to comment on it. Thank you.

QUESTION: Mr. Ebert, can you tell us without saying what was said, did Mr. Muhammad agree to be questioned by your investigators last night upon his arrival?

EBERT: I can't comment on that.

QUESTION: Without saying what was said.

EBERT: Yes, I can't comment on whether he was questioned or not questioned, I'm not going to comment on anything that has to do with this investigation. It continues. Every day, new evidence comes forward, and I don't think it would be proper for me to comment on it, ethically or otherwise.

QUESTION: Has he been appointed an attorney in the past hour?

EBERT: He has not been appointed an attorney to my knowledge. The judge will do that sometime between now and next Wednesday.

QUESTION: In Prince William County, you have a small pool of death penalty certified defenders.

EBERT: That's correct.

QUESTION: How many, approximately?

EBERT: I don't know the answer to that. I'd say three or four. But on occasion, the court will go outside the jurisdiction.

QUESTION: Mr. Ebert, could you tell us your reaction, first of actually starting the legal proceedings in this case? And also, you said, the antiterrorism was an untested law. Are you concerned that there might eventually be a challenge on that law?

EBERT: Well, I'm sure there will be a challenge on all these laws. In any case, defense counsel will challenge any and everything that they can. And a new statute which has never been tested, there's no precedent for it in this commonwealth, will certainly be a matter of legal concern.

QUESTION: Are you worried about the outcome of that at all?

EBERT: Well, no, you know, I think it's -- it fits, and that's why we presented it to the grand jury. And you know, you never know what happens in a court of law, but we're going to do the best we can with the tools we've got.

QUESTION: And your reaction to actually starting this legal proceeding now. It's now actually beginning. What's your thought?

EBERT: Well, it's an honor for me to be selected to first prosecute one of these cases. On the other hand, it's an awesome burden. It takes a lot of time and effort, and it's something that we accept readily. And you know, that's what I do for a living. I prosecute. And this is another case.

QUESTION: Mr. Ebert, you seem to point out that the second capital murder charge involves two murders committed within a period of three years -- at least two murders. And I think you indicated that you intend to go into evidence concerning some of these other sniper murders that have taken place. Do you have an idea, are you going to try and do several of the other murders elsewhere around the country?

EBERT: I anticipate before this case is over, most all of these murders will play a part in the evidence, either in the guilt phase or the sentencing phase, if he is convicted.

QUESTION: Is Prince William County getting any assistance from the state, elsewhere, to -- you called this a burden. I would assume that means financial as well. This is sure to be a very expensive trial. Is Prince William County footing this bill on its own?

EBERT: So far. And you know, the state coffers are at an all- time low. But I think we will have adequate resources. And the federal government has a printing press, and they've been most supportive.

QUESTION: Mr. Ebert, Prince William County has the jurisdiction. Why do you think this jurisdiction was chosen? Was there anything -- were there witnesses there who had, you know, strong statements, to say forensics, can you talk a little bit about that?

EBERT: I don't know the answer to that question. The attorney general made that decision. I didn't know until yesterday that he was going to direct that the marshals deliver Muhammad to this jurisdiction. He set forth yesterday his reasons. He liked the Commonwealth of Virginia's laws. He liked, I think, the evidence, and I think he liked the fact that we had seasoned prosecutors to proceed with this case.

QUESTION: But the fact that he likes the facts in this case suggests pretty clearly that you have evidence that Mr. Muhammad was the triggerman.

EBERT: I can't comment on that.

QUESTION: Mr. Ebert, did you speak with Attorney General Ashcroft? Did you speak with him?

EBERT: I did speak with him yesterday, but only yesterday afternoon, the first time I've spoken with him. QUESTION: Can you say definitely that you will -- and it may be an obvious answer -- but you will seek the death penalty in this case?

EBERT: Well, at this juncture, yes, we intend to seek the death penalty, and unless somebody can convince me otherwise, we'll continue along those lines.

QUESTION: Do you feel comfortable this would be a good -- you won't need to do a change of venue or have an outside jury from outside of Prince William come in?

EBERT: I don't know the answer to that question. I'm sure there will be a motion for a change of venue. There always is in a case of this nature. So far, we've been able to seek jurors that are unaffected by publicity, and hopefully, this will be the same situation.

QUESTION: Mr. Ebert, can you tell us why these cases are being tried in two different jurisdictions? How that strategy helps the prosecution?

EBERT: Well, the magnitude of these cases almost necessities that they be separated somewhat. The attorney general made that decision as to who was going to do what. But at the time, I didn't really appreciate the wisdom in that decision, but as time -- as things have gone on, I think it's probably the most practical way to proceed. And sooner or later, this jurisdiction, of course, will have the opportunity to try the juvenile, I think. And so Fairfax will have Mr. Muhammad before them, as other jurisdictions will.

QUESTION: Mr. Ebert, how do you intend to deal with the fact that the jury in this case will potentially be victims of the terrorism in that count?

EBERT: Well, we're going to cross that bridge when we come to it. This is a very unusual case from that nature. I think as long as the jurors can put aside whatever affect it may have had on them individually, and there's probably no one here that didn't feel some effect from the acts of terrorism. But I think the test will be if they can put that aside and render their verdict solely on what they hear in the courtroom, they will be seated as jurors.

HARRIS: We've been listening to the commonwealth attorney for the state of Virginia, Paul Ebert, talking about the case that the state of Virginia is now preparing against the suspects in the Washington-area sniper shootings of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo.

We understand that there is going to be a new statute applied here. We heard here that murder in the course of terrorism is an untested new statute, but that is what they are going to be pursuing here.

He also said that -- confirming what we've all been believing -- that they will be pursuing the death penalty in this case. And he also says he believes a trial could get under way within a year, depending upon how many different motions are filed by the defense.


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