Special Reports

Virginia scrambles to find funds for sniper case

RICHMOND, Va. - A day after the sniper attacks claimed a third life in Virginia, county prosecutors learned their offices would lose funds because of a state budget crisis.

The cuts ordered last month by Gov. Mark Warner could not have come at a worse time for counties now getting first crack at prosecuting John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo.

Seeking the death penalty for the suspects would strain resources under any circumstances, but state officials say the process will be particularly difficult unless Warner can secure federal funds for the prosecutors.

"It's the most expensive kind of prosecution," said Spotsylvania County prosecutor William Neely. His office, which will try the suspects in the Oct. 11 slaying of Kenneth Bridges and the wounding of a woman a week earlier, saw its state funding trimmed by about $30,000, or about 7 percent.

Warner cut state subsidies to all local prosecutors Oct. 15 in the first round of austerity measures meant to close a budget gap approaching $2 billion.

Since Attorney General John Ashcroft's decision to have Muhammad, 41, and Malvo, 17, stand trial first in Virginia, state officials have been scrambling to persuade Congress and Ashcroft to guarantee financial aid.

Warner last month spared cuts to the State Police as they joined local and federal authorities in Maryland and Washington in the search for the killers.

But it is unclear whether prosecutors will get a similar break.

"These crimes were committed across the nation, and if Virginia is going to carry out the prosecutions, we want to work with our congressional delegation to find federal support for that," said Warner's press secretary, Ellen Qualls.

Muhammad will face trial first on capital murder charges in Prince William County, where Vietnam veteran Dean Harold Meyers, 53, was gunned down Oct. 9 as he fueled his car.

Malvo will be tried first in Fairfax County on capital charges stemming from the Oct. 14 killing of Linda Franklin, a 47-year-old FBI analyst.

Authorities say ballistics evidence links a Bushmaster XM15 semiautomatic rifle found in Muhammad and Malvo's car when the two were arrested to both shootings, as well as to many of the other sniper attacks that terrorized the D.C. area over a three-week period.

While more of the attacks were in Maryland, Ashcroft chose Virginia to prosecute the suspects first largely because of its record on securing and carrying out death penalty convictions. The state has had 86 executions since resuming capital punishment in 1982. Only Texas has executed more people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

The attorney general said his decision also was based on the experience of Fairfax and Prince William County prosecutors in handling high-profile cases.

The losses of state funding to both counties' prosecutors under the current budget cuts are significant: Prince William County's will lose $83,387 from its nearly $1.2 million state allocation, and Fairfax County's will lose $95,951 from its $1.3 million state allotment.

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) said last month that he expects Congress to supplement states for the costs of trying the sniper cases and for searching for and investigating the suspects.