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Community Center Shootings

Federal, State Prosecutors Sort Out Jurisdiction Over Case

Courts: In closed-door session on turf dispute, officials discuss which agencies should file charges in various incidents.

August 12, 1999|TED ROHRLICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal and state prosecutors in Los Angeles spent much of Wednesday trying to sort out who should prosecute Buford O. Furrow.

"I think they want to prosecute him and I know we want to prosecute him," said a source at the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

A federal prosecutor confirmed the turf dispute. "We are going to file overlapping charges and determine as the evidence plays out which charges and jurisdictions will best serve law enforcement objectives," the prosecutor said.

Late Wednesday, Grant D. Ashley, an FBI spokesman, announced that prosecutors reached a joint decision that Furrow would be charged in federal court with killing a U.S. government employee and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Furrow waived extradition and was expected to be arraigned in Los Angeles as soon as today.

No decision had been disclosed regarding the filing of charges in connection with the attack on the North Valley Jewish Community Center.

At issue was a deceptively simple question: Given the vagaries of the state and federal court systems, who would have the easier time securing the harsher penalty?

Turf disputes of this kind are relatively rare. Richard Drooyan, a top assistant in the U.S. attorney's office here for five years, said: "I don't recall any cases where [they] said [they] wanted it and we said we wanted it."

But this case is likely to generate intense publicity, so pride, public service and political value are at stake.

Good taste probably prevented Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, an elected official, and U.S. Atty. Alejandro Mayorkas, who is appointed, from making a case that they each most deserve publicity. So the debate, which took place behind closed doors, probably turned on legal and proprietary arguments such as these, a variety of legal experts said:

* State prosecutors have more practice handling violent crime cases. But federal prosecutors have more practice running investigative grand juries--a handy talent if authorities believe that others conspired with Furrow.

* Federal prosecutors have a proprietary interest and a historical precedent to prosecute the slaying of a U.S. government worker, an offense that could carry the death penalty. State prosecutors could also seek the death penalty, but only if the postal worker was slain in a special circumstance, such as a robbery or as the killer sought to evade capture.

* Federal courts move more quickly than state courts--a boon or a hindrance, depending on how much more investigation is needed. Federal death penalty appeals are also quicker because they do not need to move through state court first.

* The shootings at the Jewish community center could be tried in state court as attempted murders or, possibly, in federal court as hate crimes. Either could be punishable by consecutive life terms. But federal prosecutors were studying the U.S. hate crime statute's wording Wednesday, unclear as to whether it could be made to apply to a private day-care facility. The statute clearly covers people who are victimized because of their race or religion while exercising rights, such as voting or enjoying public or federally funded accommodations.

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