Jury chooses death penalty for sniper John Allen Muhammad

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- A jury decided Monday that John Allen Muhammad should be executed for taking it upon himself to choose who should live and who should die during the sniper attacks that gripped the Washington area for three terrifying weeks last fall.

The enigmatic Muhammad reacted with the same flinty look he had through most of the trial.

The jury deliberated more than five hours over two days before deciding the fate of Muhammad, a 42-year-old Gulf War veteran who masterminded the attacks.

The jury's recommendation is not final. Judge Leroy F. Millette Jr. can reduce the punishment, but Virginia judges rarely take such action.

Some jurors said the lack of any emotion or remorse from Muhammad, combined with the broad scope and violence of the shootings, convinced them that the death penalty was the only option.

"I looked for something in him that might have shown remorse," said juror Robert Elliott. "And I never saw it the whole time."

Muhammad was sentenced to death on both counts he was convicted of last Monday: committing multiple murders within three years and committing murder as part of a plot to terrorize the public.

"They took pleasure in terrorizing people," prosecutor Paul Ebert said Monday of Muhammad and fellow suspect Lee Boyd Malvo. "They took pleasure in killing people. That's the kind of man that doesn't deserve to be in society."

The jurors looked solemn as they came back with their decision; Muhammad stood ramrod straight as he listened. The courtroom was silent; the judge had warned against any outbursts before the jury's decision was announced.

Prosecutors had depicted Muhammad as a ruthless murderer who was "captain of a killing team," and they presented evidence of 16 shootings, including 10 deaths, in Maryland, Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana and Washington, D.C. Muhammad could be prosecuted in those jurisdictions as well.

When he and 18-year-old Malvo were arrested on Oct. 24, 2002, various jurisdictions scrambled to prosecute them. Ultimately, Attorney General John Ashcroft sent the two to Virginia, citing the state's ability to impose "the ultimate sanction."

Only Texas has executed more people than Virginia since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 -- 310 to 89. Virginia is also one of 21 states that allow the execution of killers who committed their crimes at 16 or 17. Malvo was 17 at the time of the shootings.

Virginia uses lethal injection for executions unless the prisoner requests the electric chair.

Defense attorney Peter Greenspun suggested that the Justice Department had essentially shopped around for a jurisdiction willing to impose death.

"What is more unseemly than the attorney general of the United States saying we're going to go to Virginia where Mr. Muhammad is going to be killed?" Greenspun asked.

Greenspun indicated he sees several major issues for appeal, including whether Virginia's post-Sept. 11 terrorism law applied in the sniper case. Muhammad became the first person convicted under the law. Greenspun also argued that Virginia law does not allow the death penalty for Muhammad because there was no evidence he was the triggerman.

Muhammad was found guilty of murder in the slaying of Dean Harold Meyers, a 53-year-old Vietnam veteran who was cut down by a bullet that hit him in the head on Oct. 9, 2002, as he filled his tank at a Manassas-area gas station.

Prosecutors said the killings were in part a plot to extort $10 million from the government. Prosecutors also suggested that Muhammad planned to kill his ex-wife -- and make it look like a purely random attack -- so that he could regain custody of his three children.

At the height of the killings, the area was so terrified that sports teams were forced to practice indoors, people kept their heads down as they gassed up their cars, and teachers locked their classroom doors and drew the blinds.

Some schools in Virginia closed for several days after police found a note tacked to a tree at one shooting scene: "Your children are not safe anywhere, at any time." A tarot card found at the scene of a Maryland shooting had a handwritten message that said, "For you Mr. police call me God."

During the sentencing phase, prosecutors presented evidence that Muhammad may have planned to extend the wave of killings over a wide swath of the East Coast. A map found on the laptop showed more than two dozen locations, stretching to Raleigh, N.C., many with notations such as "good spot."

Marion Lewis, whose 25-year-old daughter was killed as she vacuumed her van at a gas station, said a death sentence is the only acceptable fate for Muhammad.

"If he's allowed to live his life in prison, he's drawing breath, he's watching TV, he's getting three meals a day," Lewis said. "The fact that he has been sentenced to death, I do feel some relief. They came to the same conclusion I had, that the man needs to be removed completely."

The defense sought to convince the jury that Muhammad's life was worth sparing, presenting evidence of his loving relationship with his children. That included a 15-minute home movie showing Muhammad laughing and playing with his kids, and letters from each of the children, ages 10 to 13, in which they expressed their love for their father.

Meanwhile, the defense opened its case in Malvo's trial with testimony from the teenager's father, Leslie Malvo of Kingston, Jamaica. Leslie Malvo said he had a "loving" relationship with his son and described him as "manageable" and obedient.

The defendant's father cried, sniffled and took long pauses as he recounted how he taught Lee to ride a bicycle and play catch and would buy him ice cream almost every night. The defendant laughed as his father described how the ice cream dripped down the 3-year-old Lee's hand and arm.

Malvo said he never saw Lee with a gun and never trained him to use one.

The testimony came after the prosecution played the remainder of a recorded police interview in which the teenager bragged about his marksmanship and admitted pulling the trigger in all the shootings.

Much of the hiss-filled audiotape was inaudible. According to a transcript, Malvo said he thought he would be executed.

"I think they're gonna kill me," Malvo said. He later added: "Between Alabama, Louisiana and Virginia, Alabama, good as gold."

Asked whether that scared him, Malvo replied: "You want to hang me, OK, poke me, shock me, just gonna last for 3 minutes, 2 minutes, then you're dead."

Malvo also said he thought "my dad," meaning Muhammad, would be executed. "They're gonna get rid of him as fast as possible," he said.

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