Abuses in the Sniper Case
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
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
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
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.