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Tuesday, 29 October, 2002, 23:57 GMT
Sniper lawyer pleads for fair trial
A van believed to be carrying the two suspects
The shootings stopped after the suspects were arrested
Lawyers acting for the main suspect in the Washington area sniper case have appealed to the public to respect the presumption of innocence in US law.


This is a situation when there is so much emotion and so much passion that breeds the chance for error and mistake

Jim Wyda
Defence lawyer
John Allen Muhammad was arrested last Thursday, with a young companion, John Lee Malvo.

They face a number of charges over a three-week killing spree which left 10 people dead and terrorised residents of Maryland, Virgina and the Washington area.

The latest charges - a federal complaint filed earlier on Tuesday - accuse Mr Muhammad of using a firearm as part of a scheme of extortion.

John Allen Muhammad
Muhammad has not been convicted of any other crimes, his lawyers says.
Since their arrests, the killings have come to an end but Mr Muhammad's court-appointed lawyer, Jim Wyda, called on people to respect his client's right to a presumption of innocence and a fair trial.

"What we're asking you to do, and asking the public to do, is to respect that process.

"Mr Muhammad needs it very badly. This is a situation when there is so much emotion and so much passion that breeds the chance for error and mistake," Mr Wyda said.

Extortion plot

Police say the sniper left a note demanding $10m at one of the shootings.

The crime of extortion for which the 41-year-old Mr Muhammad has been charged by the federal authorities is punishable by the death penalty.

Main charges against Muhammad
Conspiracy to commit offences against the United States
Discharging a firearm as part of an extortion scheme
Conspiracy to affect interstate commerce by threats of extortion and physical violence
Discharging a firearm into a school zone
Use of a firearm during commission of a crime of violence causing death to a person
Federal officials have refused to disclose what charges there are, if any, against the 17-year-old Mr Malvo, because he is a minor.

The Justice Department now has 10 days in which to indict the suspects.

Murder charges have already been filed against both men in the states of Virginia and Maryland, where the majority of the shootings were carried out.

Various law enforcement agencies are still continuing to compile evidence against Mr Muhammad, a Gulf War army veteran, and Mr Malvo, a Jamaican immigrant whom Mr Muhammad called his stepson.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that a priest who ran a homeless shelter where Mr Muhammad stayed last year told the FBI he believed his tenant was planning a terrorist attack against the US.

Legal complexities

The legal process that should lead to a trial is particularly complicated because the sniper murders were carried out in three states - each with different death penalty laws - as well as in different jurisdictions within those states, each of which is entitled to stage their own prosecution.

Defence lawyer Jim Wyda
Wyda said his client had not been convicted of any other crimes
On Monday, prosecutors from Virginia's Spotsylvania County charged Mr Muhammad and Mr Malvo with the murder of Kenneth Bridges on 11 October and the attempted murder of an unnamed woman one week earlier.

Like the authorities in Maryland, attorneys said they wanted to try the 17-year-old as an adult.

The prosecutor in Virginia said his team would present evidence that Mr Malvo fired the shot that killed Linda Franklin on 14 October.

Correspondents say that if Mr Malvo, a Jamaican citizen, was found to be the gunman in Fairfax it could make it more likely that the death penalty could be imposed on him.

Authorities in Virginia have been highlighting the fact that they could ask for the death sentence against both men as a way to secure what would be a very high-profile first trial.

The chief prosecutor in Montgomery County, Douglas Gansler, said last week he believed that his team had the strongest case against the men partly because there were six murders in the county, including four in a two-and-a-half hour period.

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The BBC's Gillian Ni Cheallaigh
"The US attorney general is talking about sure, swift, justice"

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26 Oct 02 | Americas
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