- The Washington Times - Friday, October 1, 2004

A Fairfax County judge yesterday dismissed capital murder charges against convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad, a decision that likely eliminates the possibility of future prosecutions in Virginia.

Circuit Judge M. Langhorne Keith said in an eight-page letter that he dismissed the charges because Muhammad was denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial. Virginia law states criminal defendants are entitled to a trial within five months of their arrest.

Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. filed a motion asking Judge Keith to reconsider his decision. However, the judge’s dismissal cannot be appealed.

“It’s over and [Muhammad] can never be tried on this charge,” Mr. Horan said of his effort to try Muhammad in the death of Linda Franklin, who was shot at the Falls Church Home Depot.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner can intervene, but said yesterday through a spokesman that he will wait until Judge Keith reviews the motion.

Muhammad’s attorneys said U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft will influence where Muhammad will be tried next, but prosecutors in Maryland and Louisiana said Mr. Warner, a Democrat, will make the decision. The Department of Justice declined to comment.

Muhammad will face at least one other prosecution while his attorneys appeal the death sentence he received in March from Prince William County. He was found guilty in the fatal Oct. 9, 2002, shooting of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, at a Manassas gas station. The appeals process, which is expected to take three to four years, will begin in early November, at which time the state’s Supreme Court hears arguments.

Muhammad, 43, most likely will go on trial next in either Montgomery County or Baton Rouge, La.

Prosecutors in Montgomery, Ala., also want Muhammad extradited there, but six of the 13 victims of the October 2002 shooting spree were shot in Montgomery County. All six Montgomery County victims died.

Lee Boyd Malvo, who police said accompanied Muhammad in the shooting spree, was sentenced to life in prison by a Fairfax judge in March for the Oct. 14, 2002, fatal shooting of Mrs. Franklin.

The killings began and ended in Montgomery County, and Maryland recently lifted its moratorium on the death penalty under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.

Though only one of the suspected sniper victims was fatally shot in Baton Rouge, Muhammad could go there next because prosecutor John Sinquefield say he has strong evidence.

“We’ve got our papers filed, and we’re in the lottery,” he said yesterday.

Mr. Sinquefield has a long and successful record in capital murder cases. His office has obtained death penalties in 22 of 25 capital murder cases over the past decade.

The victim, Hong Im Ballenger, 45, was shot and killed Sept. 23, 2002, in the parking lot of the Baton Rouge beauty store where she worked. Mrs. Ballenger’s death was one of the nine shootings, five fatal, in which Muhammad and Malvo are suspects, in addition to the D.C.-area sniper spree that killed 10 and wounded three.

Spotsylvania County, where Kenneth H. Bridges, 53, was shot and killed Oct. 11, 2002, likely will not prosecute Muhammad because they have filed a detainer against him, the same action taken by Fairfax authorities that led to yesterday’s dismissal.

Judge Keith ruled yesterday that the detainer filed by a Fairfax detective Jan. 6 of this year constituted an arrest, though Mr. Horan had argued that Fairfax did not arrest Muhammad until they took physical custody of him from death row in Sussex on May 27.

Fairfax first obtained an indictment against Muhammad in November 2002, shortly after his capture in Frederick County, Md. Officials faxed the detainer in January of this year, but Detective Christopher Flanagan called the Prince William County jail to specifically instruct them not to arrest Muhammad and instead place the detainer in his file.

Detective Flanagan testified last week that he called at the behest of Mr. Horan.

Had Fairfax County prosecuted Muhammad within five months of Jan. 6, the defense likely would have filed for a continuance and waived its right to a speedy trial, said Joseph A. Bowman, a defense lawyer with experience in several capital murder trials in Northern Virginia.

Mr. Bowman expected yesterday’s ruling would be a tough blow to Mr. Horan, who also was unable to win a death penalty for Malvo.

“We certainly don’t agree with [yesterday’s] finding,” Mr. Horan said. Muhammad “was not arrested until June.”

Muhammad’s attorneys, Jonathan Shapiro and Peter D. Greenspun, said they were satisfied with the judge’s decision.

“We always will keep in mind the many victims and lives that were lost, but an important point was made here, and that is that the rule of the law must be followed, even in the most important of cases,” Mr. Shapiro said.

Relatives of the shooting victims — at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton for the dedication of a memorial to the victims — expressed their displeasure with the ruling.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Denise Johnson, the wife of the final sniper victim, bus driver Conrad Johnson, who was shot and killed Oct. 22, 2002, in Aspen Hill. The “ruling to me doesn’t make much sense.”

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