GREENBELT, Md. (AP) – The government filed its first charges against sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad yesterday, accusing him of a deadly extortion plot in a complaint that could carry a death sentence.

The 20-count complaint charges Muhammad, 41, with discharging a firearm as part of an extortion scheme in the deaths of seven people in Maryland and the wounding of three others, in Maryland and Virginia.

U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty of Virginia said if a firearm is used to carry out violence in an extortion scheme, the crime is punishable by the federal death penalty. Police believe the sniper left a note demanding $10 million at the scene of a Virginia shooting.

The complaint did not name the other suspect, 17-year-old John Lee Malvo, because he is not an adult. A juvenile can be charged with a federal capital offense but cannot be executed.

Malvo and Muhammad already face murder charges in Virginia and Maryland in the attacks that killed 10 people and wounded three. Alabama has charged them in a killing outside a liquor store last month in Montgomery.

The question of whether there will be federal indictments remains undecided, McNulty said. He said a complaint is “just a charging document that has the effect of further holding the defendants.”

“But that charging document today would lay out some of the grounds for a federal case,” McNulty said.

It is also unknown whether a federal prosecution would begin before or after state prosecutions.

During a brief hearing, Muhammad said he understood the charges against him and another court appearance was scheduled for Nov. 5.

Outside court, James Wyde, the chief federal public defender in Maryland, urged the public to withhold judgment until evidence is heard.

“Mr. Muhammad is a 41-year-old father,” Wyde said. “He was an American who served in the Persian Gulf. He was honorably discharged. He has never been convicted of another crime at any time, anywhere.”

He said Muhammad is accused “of an incomprehensible crime, one that had a profound impact on our community and has destroyed the lives of the victims and their families.”

“What I’m asking you to do at this point is to wait for the process to work,” Wyde said.

The affidavit details evidence found in the 1990 Chevrolet Caprice in which Muhammad and Malvo were sleeping when they were arrested at a Maryland rest stop last week.

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