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Sniper Jurors Seem Divided

Judge tells panel he expects a unanimous decision after question is raised about prospect of a lack of unanimity in Muhammad sentencing.

November 22, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Jurors deciding whether convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad will live indicated Friday they were not in agreement when they passed the judge a note that asked: "If we can't reach a unanimous decision, what happens?"

Prince William County Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. called the seven women and five men on the panel into the courtroom, but did not directly answer their question. He said that the trial had gone on for six weeks and that he expected them to find agreement on Muhammad's punishment. Millette told the jury to return Monday morning to resume deliberation.

Under Virginia law, the jury that convicted Muhammad of capital murder Monday has only two sentencing options: It could condemn the 42-year-old 1991 Persian Gulf War veteran to death by lethal injection or give him life in prison without the possibility of parole. Millette must back the jury's recommendation, and the judge could reduce a death sentence to life in prison; but that has rarely occurred in Virginia.

When a female juror asked Millette Friday if she could spend the weekend researching various legal cases on the Internet, the judge -- appearing somewhat dumbfounded -- ordered her to stay off the Internet and reminded jurors that they could consider only the evidence introduced during the trial.

Muhammad was convicted of killing one of 10 people who died last year during the three-week sniper spree that terrorized the Washington, D.C., area.

His alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, has confessed to investigators that he was the triggerman in all the attacks. The prosecution charged that Muhammad was in charge of the sniper team, which also has been linked to shootings in Alabama, Louisiana, Washington state, Arizona and Georgia, dating to Feb. 16, 2002.

Malvo is being tried separately in Chesapeake, Va., 15 miles southwest of here. The trials were moved out of the Washington metropolitan area because defense attorneys feared that an unbiased jury could not be found in a region terrorized by the attacks.

Malvo's court-appointed attorneys have not disputed that he participated in the assaults. But they say Malvo is not guilty by reason of insanity because he was brainwashed by Muhammad -- whom the teenager viewed as his surrogate father -- and was unable to distinguish right from wrong during the sniper attacks.

In a taped jailhouse confession played in court Friday, Malvo said he and Muhammad had picked targets in places with white vans nearby because they knew police were on the lookout for that type of vehicle. He also said that the pair had returned to some of the crime scenes to watch police at work.

Defense attorneys in the penalty phase of Muhammad's trial tried Thursday to convince the jury that his life should be spared. They called friends and family members who testified that Muhammad had been a loving father to his three children; he lost custody in a court battle with his former wife, Mildred Muhammad.

Muhammad's sister, Aurolyn Williams, testified that her brother -- the fifth of six children born to his unwed mother -- never had a violent streak when he was young. "He was a silly little boy that always cracked jokes," she said. "He wouldn't hurt a fly."

Prosecutor James Willett, who pressed the jury to return a death sentence, called Muhammad the "embodiment of malice." He strode across the courtroom and, waving his finger just inches from Muhammad's face, said: "Why do we have this thing here? I can't answer that. This proceeding is not designed to answer that. The only question now is: What should his punishment be?"

As Willett gave his closing arguments, photos of the victims who were killed in the sniper rampage flashed across a large screen facing the jurors.

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