Who Should Prosecute the Snipers?
The sniper suspects who terrorized the Washington DC area for most of October have been arrested, but a controversy over who should prosecute them has ensued. Virginia, Maryland, and Alabama have already filed murder charges, raising the likelihood of a jurisdictional battle between them. Late last week, however, the federal government also filed criminal charges against the two men, accusing them of a plot to extort $10 million. The extortion charge is based on a note the killers left at the scene of one of the murders demanding money. Attorney General Ashcroft has made it clear he thinks the feds, rather than any of the states involved, should try the case.
Yet the snipers are guilty of murder first and foremost. They may have been extortionists as well, although it’s hard to believe money was really their motivation. Even if a passable case for extortion can be made, however, their 10 murders in the DC area are far more serious crimes. Justice clearly requires that both suspects be tried for murder — a crime which constitutionally and historically is a state matter. Why should lesser federal charges of extortion take precedence over state murder charges?
Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia all have valid claims for prosecuting the case, because the sniper and his accomplice committed murders in all four jurisdictions. Prosecutors from each understandably want to bring these killers to justice on behalf of their citizens. After all, it was the people of these states who were truly terrorized for nearly a month. Of course a federal court may be needed to decide which state prevails in the inevitable jurisdictional battle, especially since the availability of the death penalty varies between them. But the rush to have a federal court try these two men reminds us that the federal government cares very little about states’ rights. The feds appear to be more interested in hijacking a high-profile prosecution for their own benefit than allowing the states to enforce their own laws.
The trend toward federalizing state criminal matters mirrors the rise in federal domination over the states themselves. As the federal government grows, so grows the power of the federal court system — at the expense of state sovereignty and the 10th amendment. As a result, the people of the various states have lost much of their voice about how criminals ought to be treated. The sniper case provides us with an opportunity to reassert the power of states to bring criminals to justice, while rejecting the notion that the federal government must be involved simply because the sniper murders generated national interest.
Dr. Ron Paul is a Republican member of Congress from Texas.