In the days after 44-year old Crystal Washington was shot to death at a busy intersection about 14 blocks from the Capitol, authorities offered few details about the killing.
Police officers attended her funeral, along with about 300 mourners, to watch for any suspects who might show up. The Metropolitan Police Department issued a short press release saying her body had been found on the 1400 block of Maryland Avenue Northeast with multiple gunshot wounds but gave no clues about why someone would want her killed.
Nearly two years later, Washington’s death looms large in closed-door talks at the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, where prosecutors soon will decide whether to seek the death penalty against two men charged with killing her to keep her from testifying.
The defendants — Mark Pray and Alonzo Marlow — stand charged in a broader federal conspiracy case that includes a host of other federal charges, including two other murders and drug trafficking. Prosecutors also are considering seeking the death penalty against a third defendant in the conspiracy case, Kenneth Benbow, who, along with Mr. Pray, is charged in the 2008 murder of Van Johnson Jr. in Prince George’s County.
The decision to seek capital punishment in the nation’s capital, where residents have voted against the death penalty in local cases, is rare but not unheard of because federal prosecutors are not bound by D.C. laws.
So far, the Obama Justice Department has not filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty in any other cases in federal court in Washington, but previous Democratic and Republican administrations have done so on occasion.
Prosecutors say Mr. Pray was the head of a violent drug gang based in the Barry Farms neighborhood in Southeast Washington that had tentacles in Maryland and other parts of the city.
In recent court filings, lawyers for the three defendants argued that despite a perception that the Obama administration may be less prone to seek the death penalty compared to the George W. Bush administration, “the federal death penalty is still very much in use.”
“The possibility of a death penalty prosecution in this case is very real,” the defense lawyers argued.
“On the whole, it is right to say the federal death penalty is still active,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
He said under Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., the Justice Department approved seeking the death penalty at about the same rate as former Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, who served during the last year and two months of the Bush administration, according to Mr. Dieter. But he added that both Mr. Holder and Mr. Mukasey lagged behind former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who ran the Justice Department from 2001 to 2005.
The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on any discussions under way in Washington. In recent weeks, attorneys for all three defendants have been invited to make presentations to prosecutors trying to decide whether to recommend the death penalty.
Mr. Pray’s attorney, James G. Connell III, declined to comment on any specific topics discussed in the case. In general, he said defense lawyers often talk about mental health and mental retardation issues, socioeconomic factors, cost factors and the facts of the case.
Even if the U.S. attorney’s office decides to recommend the death penalty, that doesn’t mean the trail will be a capital case. The Justice Department also will review the case. Ultimately, it’s up to Mr. Holder as attorney general to decide.
During the past decade, juries have twice rejected the death penalty in federal cases in the District.
In 2007, a federal jury rejected the death penalty against Larry Gooch, convicted of carrying out murders as the enforcer of the so-called M Street Crew in a neighborhood not far from the National Arboretum. He’s serving life in prison.
In a different drug conspiracy case a few years earlier, a jury split on giving the death penalty to Kevin Gray, convicted in 19 murders, and Rodney Moore, convicted in 10 murders. Both received life in prison.
In 2006, another death-penalty case fell apart before it ever got to trial when U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle threw out the confessions of three members of the Liberation Army of Rwanda brought to the U.S. to face charges of killing two Americans on a safari vacation in Uganda.