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Legal Abuses in the Sniper Case

New York Times Editorial

October 21, 2003

It takes nothing away from the horror of the Washington-area sniper attacks last year to say that the government should follow the law in prosecuting the suspects. But the prosecutors have been so intent on getting the death penalty that they have repeatedly bent the law. John Muhammad, whose trial began yesterday, may be guilty of murder, but the prosecutors diminish our justice system when they try to convict him of capital murder, a crime that the facts do not support.

Mr. Muhammad is being tried, in what could be the first of several prosecutions, for the murder of Dean Meyers at a gasoline station last October. Virginia's death penalty law has a "triggerman" rule, requiring that only a defendant who immediately caused a killing be eligible for capital punishment. But even the prosecutors say it appears that Lee Malvo, Mr. Muhammad's accomplice, then 17, was the shooter. To get around that inconvenient fact, they argue that Mr. Muhammad was "captain" of a "killing team" that included Mr. Malvo. It is a stretch, and one the law does not support.

The second law prosecutors are mangling is an antiterrorism statute that makes it a capital crime to kill someone during an act of terrorism. Whatever twisted motives Mr. Muhammad may have had, there is no reason to believe that he was using the sniper attacks for political ends. Proceeding against Mr. Muhammad as a terrorist is a clear misuse of the law, and an indication that prosecutors will use the array of new antiterrorism laws passed since Sept. 11, including the Patriot Act, to increase their surveillance power, and impose tougher sentences, in nonterrorism cases.

But the deck-stacking in favor of execution began earlier, when the Justice Department steered Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo to Virginia for their first prosecutions. By all rights, Maryland should have been allowed to proceed first. The sniping spree began in Maryland, and the investigation ended there when the two suspects were arrested. Maryland had six sniper fatalities, compared with three in Virginia and one in Washington.

The Justice Department once again ignored inconvenient facts, and evidently went with Virginia because it was more likely to execute the defendants. Virginia imposes the death penalty on juveniles like Mr. Malvo, but Maryland does not. And Virginia has executed 89 people since 1976, compared with Maryland's three.

The trial has had an unfortunate start, with Mr. Muhammad, who has insisted on representing himself, rambling in his opening argument. In criminal trials, prosecutors, as well as judges, have a duty to ensure that justice is done. To uphold this duty, the prosecutors should have charged Mr. Muhammad with noncapital murder, which describes the crime he is alleged to have committed, and nothing more.

 

 
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