The Pokey Little Prosecutor

Day 28 of the D.C. Indictment Watch.

Prosecutor Moves at Own Pace,” reads the headline in a Nov. 14 Washington Post profile of Roscoe C. Howard Jr., U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. You can say that again! It is now 28 days since sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo were taken into custody. (For previous installments in the D.C. Indictment Watch, click here and here.) Charges have been filed in four Virginia counties, three Maryland counties, Louisiana, and Alabama, but not in Washington, D.C., where the snipers killed an elderly Haitian immigrant named Pascal Charlot on Oct. 3.

The quality of the evidence against Muhammad and Malvo is excellent. They were found with the murder weapon in a Chevrolet Caprice that had been customized for covert sharpshooting, and—oh, yes—Malvo confessed the other day that he pulled the trigger on Charlot. (“He told investigators,” the Post reported, “that he waited in his car until Charlot stepped off a curb as a traffic light changed, and then he fired.”) Conceivably prosecutors don’t yet have enough to convict, but they certainly have enough to indict. Yet D.C. has not. Howard, you see, works for Attorney General John Ashcroft, who is focused like a laser on executing Muhammad and Malvo. Indicting Muhammad and Malvo for murder in D.C. will not bring Ashcroft closer to that goal, and indeed might delay it, because D.C. has no death penalty.

Apparently Chatterbox, who lives a few blocks from where Charlot was killed, is not the only one feeling impatient with Howard’s pokey pace. D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey is also doing a slow burn. He stayed away last week when Ashcroft gathered together area law enforcement officials for a press conference announcing that Muhammad and Malvo were being turned over to Virginia prosecutors. According to  the Post, he did this out of frustration that Howard’s office had not yet filed charges in D.C. “I don’t know exactly what it is the U.S. attorney’s office is waiting for,” he said. Howard shot back:

There’s still a lot of information out there that we need to get a handle on. I know Chief Ramsey said we have everything we need, but … we indict these to win. We don’t look to other jurisdictions to dictate our timetable, and we don’t look to political pressure or media attention to dictate our timetable.

Howard didn’t explain what missing information he was talking about, but the Post cited “sources familiar with the investigation” who said police had not yet interviewed someone called by Muhammad and Malvo from a pay phone near the shooting site at the intersection of Kalmia Road and Georgia Avenue. They learned about the call by examining records for a phone card found in the Caprice. When asked about this, Ramsey replied, “The calling card left behind was a .223-caliber slug.” Good answer! The D.C. city councilman who represents the neighborhood where Charlot was killed, Adrian Fenty, has written Howard to complain, too. “If the snipers had committed all of their homicides in the District,” Fenty told Chatterbox, “We would not yet have arrested or charged them with anything. … They would literally be on the street right now.”

So is D.C. going to charge Muhammad and Malvo in connection with Charlot’s killing? “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” Channing Phillips, spokesman for Howard’s office, told Chatterbox today. Prosectors are “shoring up the probable cause” needed to indict, Phillips said. Will we see action within the next month? No sweat, Phillips replied, it should be within days. Let’s see if it happens by Thanksgiving.

[Update, Nov. 15: Shortly after Chatterbox spoke with Phillips, Howard  formally charged  Muhammed and Malvo with first-degree murder. Click here for the Post’s account.]