Choosing Virginia

Attorney General John Ashcroft placed a huge responsibility on the shoulders of Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert this week when he turned over suspected mass murderer John Allen Muhammad to Prince William County authorities in preparation for a capital murder trial.

In doing so, Ashcroft showed an enormous amount of confidence in Ebert, his staff and their ability to secure a conviction that places Muhammad on Virginia’s death row for at least one of the multiple murders he is accused of committing with fellow sniper suspect John Lee Malvo. The pair are suspects in a string of 13 shootings last month that resulted in 10 deaths in suburban Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia including the murder of Dean Harold Meyers, who was killed Oct. 9 on Sudley Road north of Manassas. The pair are also suspected in other murders across the country.

The capture of Muhammad and Malvo came after weeks of unprecedented multi-jurisdictional cooperation between law enforcement agencies in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Eager to avoid even the perception of chaos among the several states seeking first crack at the prosecution, the federal government took the two suspects and charged them only to drop the charges and turn them over to Virginia authorities. Malvo is awaiting trial in Fairfax County.

This doesn’t mean Maryland, the District and other states won’t get a chance to prosecute. Ashcroft’s actions only mean that Virginia gets to build the initial case.

Virginia was a solid choice for many reasons. With most Americans calling for the death penalty, Virginia prosecutors have placed more men on death row than anywhere else outside of Texas. Maryland has the death penalty but that statute was halted prior to the governor’s election by Gov. Paris Glendening who placed a one-year moratorium on capital punishment. Virginians are confident in the use of the death penalty. In Maryland, it is rarely used and is more of a political hot potato than true punishment for the most heinous crimes.

The federal government’s confidence in Virginia also shows confidence in Ebert and Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert F. Horan. Ebert and Horan bring 70 years of combined experience to the case. Ebert has sent 12 people to death row and clearly understands the importance of this case. Prosecuting Muhammad in Prince William and Malvo in Fairfax places the case in the hands of a pair of old war horses who are secure in their jobs and not motivated by politics or reelection.

The prosecutors can seek the death penalty under two different state laws. One allows capital punishment if more than one murder is committed within three years. Another statute allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty under the state’s new anti-terrorism laws. Who better to trust with this new law than Ebert and Horan?

America demands justice in response to such a ruthless terror spree. And it will find justice here in Virginia.

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