Why Can’t D.C. Prosecute the Snipers?

Because it’s a penal colony!

Strangely absent from news coverage about the jostling between Maryland, Virginia, Alabama, and the federal government over who will get dibs on prosecuting sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo is any discussion about Washington, D.C., where the snipers killed Pascal Charlot, a retired carpenter from Haiti. The papers are detailing prosecution efforts as far-flung as Antigua, but they’re silent about whether or when the District will indict Muhammad and Malvo for murder. The only reference Chatterbox can find is a glancing mention in the Oct. 29 Washington Post that the D.C. police are “working closely with the U.S. attorney’s office to bring charges.” What those charges are, and when we’ll see them, is anybody’s guess.

D.C.’s irrelevance to the sniper prosecution irks Chatterbox because he lives just a few blocks away from the corner of Kalmia and Georgia avenues, where Charlot was killed. To be sure, the District can’t make the best case for going to the head of the line; in a logical world, Maryland would because that’s where the greatest number of killings occurred. But why aren’t we even in the running?

Because D.C. doesn’t have a district attorney! That’s right: Along with no U.S. senator and a U.S. representative who doesn’t get to vote on the House floor, living in Washington means doing without a local prosecutor. When somebody gets caught committing a serious crime in D.C., he gets turned over to the U.S. attorney. (Civil cases, traffic violations, misdemeanors, and juvenile offenses are handled by the D.C. Corporation Counsel.) The U.S. attorney works for the U.S. attorney general, whose priority at the moment is to bigfoot all local jurisdictions and seek the death penalty under an obscure federal law called the Hobbs Act. D.C. will just have to wait!

As it happens, there’s a referendum  next week on the D.C. ballot about giving D.C. its own elected district attorney—or rather, since this is D.C., a referendum about whether the D.C. City Council should ask Congress to let it have its own district attorney. Frank Howard, who is managing the campaign  for Referendum A, says that the measure has some support among some congressional leaders in both parties. Given Congress’ hostile attitude toward D.C. home rule in the past, it’s unlikely this effort will go anywhere. (Though Chatterbox will certainly vote for Referendum A.) In the meantime, the system will maintain its maddening indifference about what is (yawn) just another murder in Washington, D.C.