Gansler says sniper trial cost less than $2,000

Sheriff, others put the costs closer to three-quarters of a million dollars — so far

Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2006

Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said the May trial of John Allen Muhammad cost taxpayers less than $2,000, a fraction of the figure his critics claim would be needed for the murder trial arising from the October 2002 sniper attacks that killed six people in the county.

‘‘The actual cost of the trial was $1,760 to the taxpayers of Montgomery County, less than $300 a murder,” Gansler, one of three Democrats running for state attorney general, said July 25 in an interview with The Gazette’s editorial board.

But Gansler’s figures do not include the cost of the courtroom security; the extensive security needed during transportation of Muhammad and his accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, from their Virginia prisons; and the incarceration of the two high-profile prisoners in the county detention center.

The cost to the county, including the salaries of detectives and police officers for the time they spent in preparation to testify in the case, has exceeded $743,570, said Sheriff Raymond M. Kight.

The bulk of the costs are for overtime at the jail and at the trial because of the high risk involved, he said.

‘‘I’ve got to do my job,” Kight said. ‘‘I’ve got to protect not only the prisoner, I’ve got to protect the public and the staff involved. That’s what I did.”

Jailing the snipers has exceeded $388,000 so far, said Arthur M. Wallenstein, director of the county’s Department of Correction and Rehabilitation Services. That covers the time from May 2005 when Malvo arrived at the Clarksburg jail through July 28, he said.

Total costs include $299,000 this year alone in overtime pay for correctional officers guarding the two men, and $58,458 for sheriff’s deputies who transported the men to court and guarded them in the courtroom.

County Councilman Philip M. Andrews said Gansler was ‘‘off base” in his estimate of costs.

‘‘Of course, it was the state’s attorney’s call on whether to try them here. But it’s important to recognize what the full costs were,” said Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg.

Muhammad and Malvo were convicted in Virginia in 2003 for two murders. Muhammad received the death penalty and Malvo received life without parole.

In May, Muhammad was found guilty of six counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to six consecutive life terms. Malvo has agreed to plead guilty to six counts of first-degree murder in October.

In his interview with the editors, Gansler said Virginia prosecutors who did not want the Maryland trials to continue claimed the proceedings would cost $3 million.

But Gansler said the staff was already on salary. ‘‘It’s not like the judge wasn’t going to come to work that day and we wouldn’t come to work that day,” he said.

And he dismissed the cost of jailing the snipers. ‘‘It cost exactly nothing. We had empty jail cells,” Gansler said. ‘‘The actual marginal cost of taking what is otherwise an empty cell ... and closing the door behind somebody ... is an extra scoop of spinach and a piece of bread.”

Wallenstein declined to say why the detention center needed to pay for overtime for Malvo and Muhammad’s security. ‘‘We don’t discuss the security plan, but we do a security analysis for every incoming prisoner and we then implement a security plan,” he said.

Andrews, who was briefed on potential costs 13 months ago, said the detention center’s costs include round-the-clock observation and segregation from other inmates.

Gansler has been criticized for pursuing the sniper prosecution to boost his political ambitions. He told editors he thought the cost and the perception of his ambition take away any benefit of a high-profile trail. ‘‘There’s no upside to the snipers,” he said.

Before he agreed to prosecute them, Gansler said he met with the victims’ families. ‘‘One of the victim’s mothers looked at the picture of my two boys, and she said, ‘How would you like if one of those boys was murdered and someone said to you, ‘Don’t worry about your day in court. Some jury 400 miles away from here convicted the people we think did it of somebody else’s crime. You’re now fine,’” Gansler said.

After that, he said, the decision to prosecute ‘‘was a no-brainer.”

Also factoring into his decision was the ‘‘razor-thin” decision by a Virginia appellate court to let the convictions stand. Muhammad was convicted on a ‘‘triggerman” statute when he didn’t pull the trigger, Gansler said. The two men also were convicted under a terrorism statute passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks ‘‘that had nothing to do with a couple guys driving around shooting people.”

In his interview with the editors, Gansler gave some behind-the-scenes details of the prosecution.

He drew the criticism of then U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft for filing charges against Muhammad and Malvo within days of their Oct. 24, 2002, arrest. But, Gansler said, the charges came at the advice of lawyers in the Department of Justice. If the two suspects weren’t charged right away, Gansler said he was told, some would doubt they committed the crime.

Nine days after the arrests, on Halloween, Gansler was with his sons trick-or-treating. ‘‘I remember standing on the street watching them go up to the door thinking I had some small, small, small part in actually having Halloween this year because remember everything was getting canceled that year,” he said.

Gansler also expressed mixed feelings for Malvo, whose dramatic testimony during Muhammad’s trial in May helped to fill in the hows and whys of the killing spree.

Gansler called Malvo a ‘‘cold-blooded killer” but said he is also bright, articulate, thoughtful and insightful. Malvo had read Ayn Rand’s ‘‘The Fountainhead,” and he and Gansler discussed the book’s main characters.

‘‘This is a waste of a life. ... It’s really sad. Muhammad you could have. He was just an evil, bad person for what he did, for what he did to this kid,” Gansler said.