The Death-Penalty Maze: The Cops Have Cracked the Case. Now the Legal Wrangling Begins. Who Should Take the Suspected Snipers to Court?

By Taylor, Stuart, Jr. | Newsweek, November 4, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Death-Penalty Maze: The Cops Have Cracked the Case. Now the Legal Wrangling Begins. Who Should Take the Suspected Snipers to Court?


Taylor, Stuart, Jr., Newsweek


Byline: Stuart Taylor Jr.

When State's Attorney Douglas Gansler stepped before a gaggle of microphones in suburban Montgomery County, Md., last Friday, officials watching TV downtown at the Department of Justice seethed. Gansler, an ambitious Democrat who stressed that "Montgomery County was the community most affected" by the killing spree, announced that "within the next few hours" he would file six first-degree-murder charges against suspects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo. The Feds had asked Gansler to wait while they sorted through the tricky issues of where to try the high-profile case first. Gansler was "jumping the gun," one official said.

Montgomery County and the Feds aren't the only ones staking a claim: prosecutors in Virginia counties and Alabama also want a crack at the case. The turf wars are more than political wrangling. At the heart of the debate is the emotionally charged issue of the death penalty--and the even thornier question of juvenile executions. If the first, highly publicized trial doesn't send one or both suspects to death row, it could disappoint a public eager for strong and swift justice.

Who gets the first trial may depend on who can make the most compelling case--and on who can best navigate the maze of death-penalty laws. Both Maryland and federal laws permit the death penalty, but only for adults. Maryland has put only three people to death since 1976. And the departing governor has imposed a moratorium on executions, though it could be lifted soon. Virginia, with 86 executions since 1976, and Alabama, with 23, both have stronger death-penalty credentials. They're willing to send juveniles to the death chamber, making 17-year-old Malvo eligible, too. That could feed an ongoing debate over whether minors should be executed. Four of the more liberal Supreme Court justices recently denounced the practice as "shameful. …

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