ROCKVILLE, Md. (AP) – A growing number of officials said yesterday that the state of Maryland should defer prosecution of the two sniper suspects to another jurisdiction where the death penalty could be more easily applied.

“Wherever the case is strongest, with the stiffest penalties, that’s where they need to go,” said Douglas Duncan, the top elected official in Maryland’s Montgomery County, where the rampage began Oct. 2 and where six people were slain.

John Allen Muhammad, 41, and teenager John Lee Malvo were to be charged today in Virginia, where three of the killings took place. The suspects already face multiple murder charges in Maryland, and murder charges in Alabama unrelated to the sniper shootings. They also could be charged with federal extortion and murder counts that could bring the death penalty.

Duncan told The Associated Press yesterday that prosecutors should present a “unified front” in bringing the case to the toughest venue. “I hope that’s what they do,” he said. His comments were among the first from Maryland officials suggesting the state defer prosecution to another jurisdiction.

Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas Gansler told the AP on Sunday that he still believes his state should prosecute the case first, but “we’re open to discussions with all the jurisdictions.”

Gansler acknowledged that the toughest sentence Malvo could get in Maryland would be life without the possibility of parole, but argued that his state has the strongest case because it suffered the heaviest losses.

The Justice Department suggested yesterday it is unlikely Maryland will be the first jurisdiction to try the sniper suspects, who remain in federal custody on federal firearms and material witness warrants issued before their capture.

Maryland “comes in dead last” in terms of the strength of its law on the death penalty, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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