Doug Gansler

Will the sniper trial be his big break?

Nearly everyone who has attended law school will tell you about a certain brand of student, the ones who view their legal careers as mere way stations on the inevitable journey to the Senate (or the White House). A significant chunk of those students end up in a prosecutor’s office somewhere, following one of the tried-and-true paths to higher office. Some turn into Rudy Giuliani. Others turn into Doug Gansler.

Gansler, the state’s attorney for Montgomery County, Md., grabbed headlines and mugged for the cameras last Friday by ostentatiously announcing that he would be the first to file charges against sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo. Since then, Gansler has held the media spotlight by waging a PR offensive to convince federal prosecutors that Montgomery County deserves the first whack at trying Muhammad and Malvo. To whoever will listen, he proclaims his county’s moral claim to a first trial, and he bad-mouths the feds’ case against the sniper suspects.

The past week has confirmed Gansler’s status as a near-perfect specimen of a classic political archetype—the prosecutor on the make. During his four years in Montgomery County, Gansler has become one of Maryland’s most promising and talked-about Democrats. He’s smart, he’s well-connected, he’s telegenic, and he raises gobs of cash. He has an ideal establishment résumé for a budding politico: educated at Sidwell Friends, then Yale, then University of Virginia law school, and as a high-school student, he logged internships with former Sens. Birch Bayh and Bill Bradley.

He’s also become better known for manipulating reporters than for manipulating juries. Gansler seems to spend as much time on television as a workaday pundit. He does the morning shows, he does the afternoon shows, he does the evening shows. No subject is too picayune: He’s discussed everything from Chandra Levy to Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis’ legal troubles to whether D.C. should have granted Mike Tyson a boxing license.

Perhaps his ambition would be distasteful if it weren’t so hilariously transparent, and if he weren’t so honest about it. This summer, Gansler drove to Annapolis at 8:45 p.m. just in case the current Democratic attorney general in Maryland withdrew his re-election bid by the 9 p.m. deadline. Gansler would’ve entered the race. “I just wanted to make sure,” he told the Washington Post. “And then, out of sheer laziness, I would have missed the opportunity to run for AG. … Now I know where it is for four years from now.”

Besides, Gansler’s behavior in the sniper prosecutions hasn’t harmed anyone (so far). After all, the who’s-on-first routine that currently occupies prosecutors is significant only for its political implications. Who tries the suspects first is irrelevant from the perspective of justice. If Muhammad and Malvo are guilty, the jockeying adds up to nothing more than Death Race 2002—a debate over how quickly the two men will be executed. Whether that happens after the first trial or the fourth shouldn’t matter much, to death penalty supporters and opponents alike.

But the Abbott-and-Costello competition is politically meaningful, especially in Maryland. The media attention that will be lavished on whoever tries the case first will create tremendous name recognition and goodwill for the lucky prosecutor, giving him or her a leg up in a future run for statewide office. And in Maryland, that isn’t just abstract theorizing. The two men battling to try the case first—Gansler and U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio, a Republican—are both likely candidates for state attorney general in four years. Not only do both men want to try the alleged snipers to boost their political fortunes, but they also both want to prevent their opponent from getting a career-making case.

No doubt Gansler and DiBiagio want to serve the public, do their jobs, and see justice done. But if the legal process can serve them while they serve the legal process, well, all the better from their perspectives. Unfortunately, that sets up incentives for the two men to behave in ways that can impede a successful prosecution. Already, investigators have complained that DiBiagio’s rush to file federal charges against Muhammad and Malvo cost them a possible confession. [Correction, May 12, 2003: In correcting its Oct. 30, 2002 story written by Jayson Blair, the New York Times reported yesterday that Muhammad “was not on the verge of a confession.”]

But those complaints could turn out to be minor blips if either Gansler or DiBiagio winds up serving a term or two as state attorney general. The AG’s office is a good way to build the name recognition and the political network necessary for a run at governor or senator: Ask former Missouri Attorney General John Ashcroft. Or former Arkansas AG Bill Clinton. Or current New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, widely thought to be preparing for a 2006 gubernatorial run. This isn’t to say that Gansler or DiBiagio can write their own tickets if one of them prosecutes the alleged snipers. Right now, they’re akin to the “Future Stars” that appear on baseball cards. You could be looking at the next Barry Bonds, or you could be looking at the next Todd Van Poppel.