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Capital charges brought for shootings in Virginia

WASHINGTON - Virginia prosecutors charged two men Monday in the sniper shootings that left 10 people dead and terrified the region.

The action came amid speculation that politics and ego rather than legal issues might be driving the intense jurisdictional wrangling over the case.

John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, were charged in the fatal shooting Oct. 11 of a man in Spotsylvania County and the wounding of a woman on Oct. 4.

Both shootings were part of the three-week sniper spree in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

A grand jury indicted Muhammad, who could face the death penalty.

Malvo faced similar charges in juvenile court. Authorities said they would seek to have his case transferred to adult court and he, too, could face the death penalty under Virginia law.

In Virginia's Hanover County, prosecutor Kirby Porter said Muhammad was charged with seven counts in the wounding of a man outside a steakhouse restaurant Oct. 19. Malvo was indicted on similar charges in juvenile court.

And in Fairfax County, prosecutor Robert Horan said it was possible Malvo might have been the shooter in the death of an FBI analyst outside a Falls Church Home Depot on Oct. 14.

The action in Virginia came four days after prosecutors in Maryland's Montgomery County charged Muhammad and Malvo with six counts of murder and prosecutors in Alabama charged the pair with a murder outside a liquor store that was unrelated to the sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., area.

The two are being held in federal custody in the Baltimore area. A bail hearing is scheduled today for Muhammad on a federal firearms charge. Malvo is being held as a material witness in the sniper shootings.

Prosecutors from the seven local jurisdictions and the federal government continued to spar behind the scenes Monday over who would take the lead and bring Muhammad and Malvo to trial first.

The prosecutorial infighting has attracted attention coast to coast and been criticized as "unseemly," especially given the cooperation between police agencies that led to the arrests of Muhammad and Malvo.

"It's unfortunate to see it," said Pierce County Prosecutor Gerry Horne. "Everyone needs to relax. Everyone will get a shot at them."

There are no rules when it comes to a case like the one involving the sniper, and usually prosecutors from various jurisdictions reach a deal - often brokered by federal prosecutors.

Many legal experts believe Montgomery County has the most solid arguments for pressing the initial prosecutions. Six of the 10 area slayings were in Montgomery County, including the first and the last, the investigation was centered there and the defendants could be tried on all the charges in one trial.

In such high-profile cases, prosecutors are under intense pressure from their communities to act quickly. And if they are politically ambitious, it's just the type of case they want to handle.

"Certainly there is politics involved," said Ira Robbins, a law professor at American University in Washington. "Whoever takes the lead will be in the forefront for weeks, months, even years. It's a way to get instant name recognition. Ego is the catchword of the day."

"What is driving this is the death penalty," said Robert Cleary, a formal federal prosecutor who took the lead in prosecuting Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski.

The legal moves involving Malvo put him at the heart of the controversy over executing juveniles. Last week, four Supreme Court justices called death sentences for juveniles "shameful."

Malvo's arrest stalled mounting public momentum against juvenile executions, said death penalty expert Stephen McAllister.

"It's an unsympathetic situation," said McAllister, law school dean at the University of Kansas. "This doesn't strike one as immature, youthful misjudgment."

The Supreme Court in 1988 outlawed capital punishment for children 15 and younger. It ruled earlier this year that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute the mentally retarded.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer said last Monday that the same is true of juvenile defendants.

One wrinkle could prevent the Malvo case from serving as a watershed event in the debate over juvenile executions. While Malvo is believed to be 17, Maryland State's Attorney Douglas Gansler has said it's possible the Jamaica native is 19. If that's the case, he could face the death penalty in any jurisdiction that allows it.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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