Following authorization by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to seek the death penalty, the motion was filed Feb. 18 under seal and prosecutors would not reveal the rationale for their decision.
However, it is believed that the motion includes information on Furrow's mental health, an issue that may play an important role in his defense.
According to the 15-count indictment, Furrow went on a shooting spree at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills last Aug. 10, wounding three young children, a teenage counselor, and an adult receptionist. An hour later, he allegedly gunned down mail carrier Joseph Ileto, because, he later told agents, he was a government worker and nonwhite.
Furrow surrendered to FBI agents in Las Vegas a day after the rampage and reportedly told agents that he wanted to send "a wake-up call to America to kill Jews."
It is unusual for the U.S. Justice Department to seek the death penalty -- the last execution was in 1963 -- and some analysts saw the decision as part of an effort to crack down on hate crimes.
"The federal government wants to send a message about how seriously they take this crime," law professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, told the Los Angeles Times.
According to the Times, some of Furrow's defense lawyers have approached Jewish attorneys to enlist their help in persuading the government to settle for a lesser sentence -- life without possibility of parole.
However, initial reaction by Jewish spokesmen favored the death penalty.
Jeff Rouss, executive director of the Jewish Community Centers of Los Angeles, said that "This man killed an innocent individual who was a public servant. He terrorized children and hurt them at day care. His was an act of terrorism and it was an act of murder."
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told the Times that "I think the death penalty is an absolutely appropriate punishment for a crime of this nature. For people who commit acts of terrorism against innocent people at random, the greatest deterrent is knowing that they face the possibility of a death sentence."
In one contrasting view, the Times cited the reaction of Rabbi David Saperstein of Washington, D.C., a longtime opponent of the death penalty. The director of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center noted that the government move would deflect attention from hate crimes and toward the controversy over capital punishment.
The trial is to begin no sooner than Nov. 14.
By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor