MANASSAS, Va. -- Looking unshaven and unkempt, John Allen Muhammad made his first appearance in Virginia state court Friday, and a judge told the sniper suspect he would appoint a lawyer for him.
An initial court appearance was set for 17-year-old co-defendant John Lee Malvo later in the day. The two could face the death penalty.
The hearings come a day after the two were transferred from Maryland, where they were arrested last month, to Virginia. Federal authorities said Virginia had the strongest case and best route to the "ultimate sanction."
In Prince William County, Muhammad was charged with the Oct. 9 slaying of Dean Meyers, 53, who was shot while pumping gas in Manassas.
In a five-minute hearing Friday, Circuit Court Judge Herman A. Whisenant Jr. asked Muhammad if he wanted a court-appointed lawyer.
"I thought I already had counsel," Muhammad replied in a controlled and deliberate manner, referring to a lawyer appointed earlier by the federal court.
The judge explained that Muhammad didn't have a lawyer to face the Virginia charges and again asked him if he wanted one appointed. Muhammad responded, "I don't know what to say, sir."
The judge said he will appoint a lawyer and set another hearing for next Wednesday.
Even as Attorney General John Ashcroft announced his decision to move the case to Virginia state court, yet another crime was connected by authorities to the pair -- a Sept. 21 killing in Atlanta. That brought to 18 the number of shootings linked to Muhammad, 41, and Malvo by police across the country. Thirteen people were killed.
Ashcroft said he sent the pair to Virginia in part because its laws allow the best opportunities to obtain the death penalty: The state allows execution of 17-year-olds and has put to death 86 people since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, more than any state except Texas.
"It is appropriate -- it is imperative -- that the ultimate sanction be available for those convicted of these crimes," Ashcroft said. "We believe that the first prosecutions should occur in those jurisdictions that provide the best law, the best facts, and the best range of availability penalties."
Malvo was expected to make an appearance in Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court on Friday. Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. has said he will seek to prosecute Malvo as an adult.
Federal authorities have not mentioned Malvo by name, but said instead that a "juvenile" will face capital murder charges in the Oct. 14 shooting of FBI analyst Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot.
Horan and Paul Ebert, prosecutor in Prince William County, said it probably would be months before either trial begins. Both cases will go before grand juries after preliminary court hearings, they said.
The decision to prosecute in Virginia came as the federal government dropped extortion and firearms charges that could have led to the death penalty. Those charges can be reinstated later, though.
Muhammad's public defender in Maryland, James Wyda, denounced the federal government's decision to move him to Virginia, calling it "clumsy, macabre forum shuffle for the cheapest and easiest way to obtain the death penalty."
Two Virginia statutes make the sniper cases death-penalty eligible. One is a new anti-terrorism law passed after Sept. 11 in which prosecutors need not prove who pulled the trigger for both to get the death penalty. The other provision allows capital punishment when more than one person is killed within three years, but only the triggerman can get the death penalty under that provision.
Asked if there was evidence Malvo pulled the trigger in the Fairfax case, Horan said he wouldn't comment on any specifics.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.