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Sniper Testimony Hints at Motives

Evidence of what set off Muhammad's killing spree could sway his jury on the death penalty.

November 19, 2003|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Demonized for five weeks by wrenching testimony and the indelible evidence left at his murder scenes, sniper John Allen Muhammad now has the daunting task of showing his human side in order to save his life.

The day after Muhammad was convicted in a Virginia courtroom on two capital murder counts in last year's serial slayings, prosecutors on Tuesday presented vivid testimony designed to guarantee his execution. They will be followed by defense lawyers struggling to persuade jurors that Muhammad should spend the rest of his natural life in prison.

Seeking to paint Muhammad as a lethal cipher beyond redemption, prosecutors called relatives of a Tacoma, Wash., woman slain last year in an additional killing linked to Muhammad -- beyond the 16 shootings cited at his trial. A shooting incident at a Washington state synagogue also was connected to Muhammad's gun, and prosecutors cited his alleged anti-Semitic leanings.

The jury mulling Muhammad's fate also heard one theory laying out a motive for the killings -- his fury at his former wife, who had moved with their three children to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., which were targeted during his rampage.

The momentum of Muhammad's trial already may have influenced jurors. A judge's ruling early in the case gave prosecutors leeway to present testimony about the devastation caused by the killings. And Muhammad stunted his own cause by refusing to meet with court-appointed psychiatrists and failing to show much of a human side during a two-day fling as his own lawyer, legal observers said.

"Clearly the jury is outraged. The emotion of their verdict has to carry over into the sentencing phase," said William B. Cummings, a former U.S. attorney for the northern district of Virginia.

Only the government's inability to pinpoint what triggered the serial murder spree might leave some jurors with enough doubt for them to consider a life sentence instead of execution, legal experts said.

"Jurors will want to be satisfied that death is an appropriate sentence," said Richmond, Va., defense lawyer Steven D. Benjamin. "As part of that decision, they will want to know if there's any explanation for his behavior. If that question isn't answered to their satisfaction, it might lead to some hesitation."

In Virginia and other states where juries decide guilt or innocence and then rule on sentencing, graphic testimony usually is saved for the penalty phase.

But Prince William County Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. ruled at the start of Muhammad's trial that prosecutors could introduce highly charged accounts from survivors and victims' relatives to support the assertion that the sniper killings were an act of terrorism that intimidated the public.

Such testimony appeared to strike the mark. As the verdicts were read Monday, at least two jurors wept along with grieving relatives in the front rows of the courtroom.

"The cumulative effect of all that emotional testimony has to get to jurors," Cummings said. "The misery that these murders produced is unparalleled, even in a serial killing."

Muhammad was convicted of both the terrorism count and of committing multiple murders over a three-year-period -- charges that made him eligible for the death penalty. Both murder counts stemmed from a single act of homicide in the Oct. 9, 2002, rifle slaying of Dean H. Meyers at a Virginia gas station. Muhammad's alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, is on trial in nearby Chesapeake, Va., in another sniper killing.

Prosecutors will try to influence jurors by presenting testimony from Meyers' brothers about the effect of his death. Also waiting in the wings is Muhammad's former wife, Mildred, who is expected to testify about his purported plan to use the sniper killings as cover to stalk her.

A friend from Tacoma, Earl Lee Dancy Jr., testified Tuesday that he helped Muhammad obtain several weapons in 2001. Dancy conceded that Muhammad had talked angrily of targeting his wife, saying "she caused him to lose everything, and he was going to fix her."

None of the 140 prosecution witnesses were able during the trial to talk definitively about what led Muhammad to kill. Prosecutors offered several theories -- either that Muhammad and Malvo had long planned the killings in order to raise a multimillion-dollar ransom, or that a series of lethal armed robberies tipped over into cold-blooded killing for sport.

Several investigators who pursued the snipers last year acknowledged that Muhammad's motives still elude them.

"There's no given moment that we can point to and say, 'This is what it was all about,' " one northern Virginia police detective said.

But Muhammad betrayed his intent, prosecutors said, by leaving a note threatening "more body bags."

The fact that Muhammad refused before his trial to submit to examination by psychiatrists working for the prosecution led Millette to bar Muhammad from presenting his own psychiatric defense. That will hobble lawyers Jonathan Shapiro and Peter D. Greenspun when they try to humanize Muhammad to jurors. Mental health experts for the defense had examined Muhammad and found strong evidence of "childhood trauma," Shapiro said. But Millette will allow only a limited slice of those sessions during the sentencing hearing.

"Their big loss is that there will be no qualified medical examiners discussing Muhammad's state of mind," Benjamin said. "The jury is pretty much left to speculate."

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