U.S. Sniper Case Seen as a Barrier to a Confession
Rockville, Md., -- State and federal investigators said today that John Muhammad had been talking to them for more than an hour on the day of his arrest in the sniper shootings, explaining the roots of his anger, when the United States attorney for Maryland told them to deliver him to Baltimore to face federal weapons charges and forcing them to end their interrogation.
The investigators said an F.B.I. agent and a Maryland detective had begun to develop a rapport with Mr. Muhammad. The other suspect, Lee Malvo, 17, being questioned by a Montgomery County detective, was not answering any questions, the investigators said.
"It did not look like the juvenile was going to talk," a local law enforcement official said. "But it looked like Muhammad was ready to share everything, and these guys were going to get a confession."
The investigators said they spoke with a reporter to explain why they have been so upset with the federal prosecutor, Thomas M. DiBiagio, who brought federal charges today against Mr. Muhammad. The account was given by two law enforcement officials from Maryland and three federal officials involved in the case.
Two Maryland state officials and two federal officials said that in a conference call with police officials and prosecutors Mr. DiBiagio had said he was "on orders from the Justice Department and the White House" to take the suspects into custody. They said one federal investigator had checked with the criminal division of the Justice Department, which said there was no such order.
Today, the federal government charged Mr. Muhammad with using murder as a way to commit extortion across state lines. Aides to Attorney General John Ashcroft said he wanted to determine the best jurisdiction for the death penalty.
Federal officials had filed the weapons charge against Mr. Muhammad as a means of holding him. The charges require that he be taken before a federal magistrate soon after being arrested. A senior law enforcement official defended Mr. DiBiagio's decision, saying it was based on the law and an effort to protect the case. "All this was about was being a good lawyer," the official said.
The investigators said, though, that within hours of the arrests of Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo at a rest stop at 3:19 a.m. on Oct. 24 in Myersville, they had enough evidence to file state murder charges, meaning they could continue questioning him for as long as a day before taking him before a judge.
The investigators said they ignored Mr. DiBiagio's first call at 10:30 a.m. By 1 o'clock, they said, Mr. DiBiagio told F.B.I. agents to seize Mr. Muhammad if he was not sent to Baltimore.
A federal law enforcement official dismissed the idea that Mr. Muhammad might have confessed to the killings if the interrogations had continued. The official said Mr. Muhammad "was talking, but he wasn't giving anything relevant to the crimes" in the interrogation.
"I don't believe there's anything to that at all," the official said, referring to a suggestion that Mr. DiBiagio's action had hurt the case. "The investigation has been a fully cooperative enterprise, and everyone's first priority is to bring these guys to justice. So they obviously wouldn't do anything to damage that."
State and federal investigators who were at the Montgomery County police building where Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo were taken on the morning of the arrests recalled the conference call with police officials, prosecutors and Mr. DiBiagio. The investigators now say they do not believe that Mr. DiBiagio was "on orders from the Justice Department and the WHite House" to take the suspects into custody.
A senior federal law enforcement official said that it was routine for the Justice Department to become involved in such decisions but that officials there had not given Mr. DiBiagio any orders and that "the White House had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with that."
The official said that Mr. Muhammad "was just babbling" and that taking the men to court in Baltimore was a "mutual decision" by prosecutors and members of the sniper task force. This official added that it "wasn't the U.S. attorney coming in and saying, `We're going to do this.' "
Even if the move got in the way of a fruitful interrogation, the senior federal law enforcement official said, there would be no need for a confession in this case. "Tell me what more we need from them," the official said. "We have the ballistics. We don't need the confession."
The investigators disclosed today that a few hours after the arrests, the Montgomery County police had decided to charge Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo with six counts of murder. They went forward with those charges on Friday. The charges would have been based on a rifle found in the car, a bipod to hold the weapon found in the trunk and two new items, a glove that matched one found at a shooting scene in the Aspen Hill area and a notepad that matched the paper used in notes that investigators think the sniper sent.
Even though they had probable cause, the investigators said, the police decided not to charge Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo, a move they could have made without consulting the local prosecutor, after Mr. DiBiagio had made his request. In addition to the county detectives and the F.B.I. agent, federal and local law enforcement officials had gathered to watch the interrogation.
Among those involved in the discussions over whether to file local charges or send the suspects to Mr. DiBiagio were Chief Charles A. Moose of the Montgomery County police; State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, the county prosecutor; two of his deputies, Katherine S. Winfree and John J. McCarthy; two assistant United States attorneys from Maryland, James M. Trusty and A. David Copperthite; and two assistant United States attorneys from the Eastern District of Virginia, James L. Trump and Kevin V. DeGregory.
Investigators said members of the group decided to plead with Mr. DiBiagio to allow them to continue the interrogation of Mr. Muhammad. In the afternoon, Mr. DiBiagio held a conference call with Mr. Copperthite, Mr. Gansler, Ms. Winfree and a Montgomery County detective who had been involved in the interrogations, all of whom were said to have argued that Mr. DiBiagio allow the questioning to continue.
"We told him he needed to drop the federal charges because we had them in the middle of an interrogation and that we could file state charges," one federal law enforcement official said. "He said, `It is out of my hands, and this was coming from the White House and the Justice Department.' "
The federal law enforcement official said Chief Moose argued that the group should turn over Mr. Muhammad to Mr. DiBiagio to prevent problems in the investigation.
"The Montgomery County police had made the determination that they had probable cause and they were going to charge them with six counts of murder, and they were not asking, they were telling," one local official said. "But ultimately, Chief Moose feared that a battle between the prosecutors would hurt the cooperation among his department and the federal agencies."
Mr. Muhammad was taken from the interrogation room and driven to Baltimore at 3 p.m., the law enforcement officials said. Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo appeared in court for hearings on the federal charges and were provided lawyers. Investigators said that since then Mr. Muhammad has not talked to investigators.
Richard S. Stolker, a former federal prosecutor in the District of Columbia who is in private practice and teaches criminal law at the University of Maryland, said it was highly unusual for an interrogation to be stopped midstream.
"If they have waived their rights and it is a voluntary thing and they are chattering away," Mr. Stolker said, "most investigators would carry that on as long as possible."