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The Nation

Jury Set to Weigh Sniper Fate

November 21, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — After portraying John Allen Muhammad as a good father and the victim of a tough upbringing, the defense rested its case Thursday, leaving a jury to decide whether the sniper who terrorized the Washington, D.C., area last year should spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole or die by lethal injection.

The seven women and five men on the jury were to begin deliberations today. Under the law in Virginia -- which executes more death row inmates than any state except Texas -- a jury recommending the death penalty has to find that the defendant represents a continuing threat to society or that his actions reflected a depraved mind.

Muhammad, a 42-year-old Persian Gulf War veteran, was convicted of murder by the same jury Monday in the three-week-long sniper spree that left 10 people dead and three others wounded. His alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, is being tried separately in Chesapeake, Va., 15 miles southwest.

Muhammad's court-appointed attorneys spent the session Thursday trying to convince jurors that their client had admirable qualities -- he was polite and a good family man, witnesses said -- and that he didn't deserve to be executed.

In arguing for the death penalty, prosecutors said that being a good family man at one time did not lessen the heinous nature of the sniper attacks; the assailants targeted strangers who were going about daily activities -- pumping gas, sitting in a park, leaving a Home Depot with a cart of new purchases, walking out of a restaurant.

In addition to calling friends, acquaintances and a family member, who said that Muhammad had changed for the worse after losing custody of his three children in September 2002, the defense played a video that showed Muhammad playing with his children. On Wednesday, Muhammad's former wife, Mildred Muhammad, told the court that he repeatedly had threatened to kill her before their separation in 1999.

"You can walk. Now go ahead and walk to daddy," Muhammad said on the video as one of his daughters took her first steps. "Let me see the teeth," he said in another sequence, and his daughter responded with a big smile.

Muhammad, who grew up poor in Baton Rouge, La., appeared dejected as the video played and his friends and a sister, Aurolyn Williams, testified. Much of the time, he sat frowning, with his head down and his hands clasped together.

Meanwhile, at Malvo's trial, two police officers testified this week that Muhammad had been questioned twice by patrolmen in the early days of the sniper spree, which began Oct. 2, 2002. Both said Muhammad had been polite and cooperative and that they had let him go because his Washington state driver's license and New Jersey car registration were in order.

James Snyder, a Baltimore policeman, said Thursday that he had questioned Muhammad at about 3 a.m. on Oct. 8, 2002, at a gas station in suburban Maryland, where Muhammad had been sleeping in his car. The back seat was piled with clothes, as though he were living in the car, but the vehicle had no other occupant, Snyder said.

On Wednesday, Henry Gallagher, a Washington, D.C., officer, said he had stopped Muhammad about 7 p.m. Oct 3, 2002, for running two stop signs. He said Muhammad's 1990 blue Chevrolet Caprice was very dirty and the driver was unshaven, but there was no reason to be suspicious. He gave Muhammad a warning. Three hours later, a sniper victim was killed 30 blocks away.

Malvo listened impassively Thursday as 14-year-old Iran Brown told the court how his aunt had dropped him off at school in Bowie, Md., on Oct. 7, 2002. He was one of three people who survived the sniper attacks, in which most victims were killed by a single shot.

"I heard a big bang," Brown said, "and I fell to the ground and I felt a burning." He said he staggered back to his aunt's car. "I couldn't really breathe. I told my aunt I loved her because I thought I was going to die."

Prosecutors in both trials have contended that Muhammad and Malvo acted as a spotter-shooter team, with Malvo being the principal triggerman. Malvo's attorneys don't dispute that he took part in the sniper attacks, but argue that Malvo is not guilty by reason of insanity because he was brainwashed and psychologically victimized by Muhammad.

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