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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Attorney General Pursues Sniper Case

Aired October 29, 2002 - 13:28   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN ANCHOR: John Ashcroft, the U.S. attorney general, getting ready to speak regarding the sniper case. Federal charges filed a short while ago -- the first federal charges. It's anticipated that he is going to comment.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: ... is a very serious matter. I consider the matters charged in the federal indictment today to be atrocities. They're tragedies. They are very serious. And it's important that we have available the most serious penalties in a setting like this. And we want to be able to make sure that the system of justice operates effectively to make sure that the most serious penalties are available to address very serious crimes like this.

And so charges have been filed in the federal government. The statutes that are alleged there allege the commission of murder with the use of a gun in regard to a crime of extortion. So you have all of the serious elements of extortion, the use of a firearm, murder involved in the federal statute. And for that reason, we believe it's important for us to have made -- in this complaint today -- made these charges available.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

ASHCROFT: This filing today was in the nature of a complaint. Before any trial could be held in the federal system, there has to be an indictment. But the complaint gives us the opportunity to continue the investigation and to make the best determination about what process would best work to bring about the kind of sure and swift justice that we believe this kind of set of facts mandates.

And you know, there are already people who are saying that they don't think the ultimate penalties ought to be available, whether they are editorialists or others who don't believe in the death penalty. I believe that the ultimate sanction ought to be available here.

The filing of this federal complaint gives us the opportunity to assemble additional facts and evidence upon which to make a considered judgment.

We have filed today because we have respected the need for certain jurisdictions to be able to file in advance of the federal government in order to preserve their opportunity to defend the rights of their citizens by prosecuting. We believe an adequate respect has been extended in that regard. And it reflects the same kind of cooperation that we saw with the task force under the direction of Chief Moose. And he did a great job of assembling resources, coordinating and cooperating a group of people involved in the investigation. We would like the same kind of cooperation to characterize a decision about ultimately the prosecution.

And we would hope that the kind of success that attended the investigation in that cooperation would also attend the prosecution.

QUESTION: How concerned are you about the (OFF-MIKE)

ASHCROFT: Well, I believe there is a great opportunity for us to cooperate to get the right results here. And I believe it will happen. And we are on pace to do what we ought to do, but we want to work very deliberatively. We want to work very carefully. We want to continue to assemble evidence in this ongoing matter.

There is still analysis. There is still investigation. There are even other jurisdictions that are now developing ideas about the potential relationship of these incidents to incidents in other settings.

The filing today allows us to respect those considerations so that we can make a judgment that's cooperative, that is based on facts and evidence and that's likely to bring about the kind of severity in penalty that signals the total unacceptability of the kind of alleged acts in the complaint which was filed today.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) but some different states might be able to. Why the different standards? I mean, if the death penalty is OK for an adult, why not have it be OK for someone who is 17 years old?

ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, one of the considerations for American justice is that circumstances regarding juvenile are not open and discussed unless a juvenile is later certified to be treated by the system as an adult. And for that reason, I won't be making specific comments in regard to anyone other than the named individual in the complaint today.

QUESTION: Attorney General, consistent with your comment that you would like to seek the most severe possible penalty, the Commonwealth of -- state's attorneys in Virginia are not bashful about pointing out that, indeed, they well might be a way to go as far as (OFF-MIKE) the most severe punishment.

QUESTION: Do you agree with that?

ASHCROFT: Well, I agree with the idea of establishing this federal complaint, which gives us the time and opportunity to assess additional information, to carefully deliberate, to evaluate where we would best proceed, to do that in cooperation with other authorities. And for that reason, I believe this is the right road to follow.

Today, we filed a complaint. It alleges the most severe and atrocious of crimes. It provides a basis for additional investigation. And it gives us the opportunity to respect the considerations from a wide variety of jurisdictions in making a final determination about how to effect justice here and to do it in the same successful and collaborative way that the investigation concluded this matter.

QUESTION: Mr. Attorney General, what's your timetable for making that decision? And what methodology will you use to reach the decision?

ASHCROFT: Well, we want to make the decision in a time frame that's consistent with the best decision. We are not time-driven. We're going to be fact-driven here. We're going to be driven by justice, not by a calendar. We hope to do so promptly.

We understand that slow justice eventually could be no justice. And we expect justice to prevail here. We'll make it in a way which is as prompt as possible. And it will be a cooperative decision- making effort that's made with the state and local authorities that cooperated so effectively in the investigation.

Thank you very much.

SAVIDGE: U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft speaking about the 20-count complaint filed by the federal government against John Allen Muhammad, one of two suspects in the D.C. sniper area cases. And one of the things that the attorney general said was that the ultimate sanction ought to be available here; in case you want to put a fine point on it, he means the death penalty.

We want to bring in our legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin now.

Jeffrey, what's going on here? What's the strategy? Why the feds? Why the states? Is there a conflict?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, there's not a conflict yet. But what was interesting about what Attorney General Ashcroft said is that he wants to cooperate with all the state and local authorities about who goes first and how these cases are tried. What that means, I think, is that the cooperation has not yet taken place. The hard decisions about the order of these cases has not been made.

And you know, the situation just gets more and more complicated here because the United States, the federal government, like Maryland, adults can get the death penalty, but juveniles can't. So if the federal government goes first, only Muhammad would be eligible for the death penalty, not Malvo. So that's something to figure in as the federal government decides whether it wants to go first. Virginia and Alabama, juveniles can get the death penalty.

SAVIDGE: Say you're the lead prosecutor in Maryland: How are you feeling about what you just heard?

TOOBIN: You're feeling pretty lousy, I would suggest. I mean, I think there has been a real joining of forces between Virginia and the federal government. In this Justice Department, the Ashcroft Justice Department, is firmly, firmly committed to using the death penalty. They are fully supportive of doing that. They obviously feel it's appropriate in this case.

Maryland, even though adults are eligible for the death penalty, they simply don't use it very much. Only three people have been executed in Maryland since 1976. No one in recent years, because there's now a moratorium on the death penalty. It seems very clear that Ashcroft wants to get this case in a jurisdiction where the death penalty can be done expeditiously. That would very much suggest Virginia first, or perhaps the federal government.

The federal government doesn't do many death penalty cases. But when it does -- the most famous example being Timothy McVeigh -- it tends to get their man.

SAVIDGE: Yes. They can big foot in a big way. All right.

There's a lot I'd love to ask you. We haven't got time now, but we will get back to you later.

Jeffrey Toobin, thanks very much.

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