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Muhammad Sentenced to Death

Jurors, once split, say the sniper's lack of remorse and their fears that he might kill again led to the unanimous decision.

November 25, 2003|David Lamb and Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writers

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Fearful that a remorseless John Allen Muhammad was still capable of violence, a jury Monday decided the convicted sniper should die for orchestrating the shooting rampage that traumatized the nation's capital and its suburbs a year ago.

Deliberating just 5 1/2 hours over two days, the jurors recommended death in connection with two murder counts against Muhammad -- one for killing during a terrorist act and another for committing multiple slayings within a three-year period. The sentencing, which includes 10 years for conspiracy and three years for a firearms violation, must be approved by the trial judge.

U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft last year handed Muhammad and his alleged teenage accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, over to Virginia authorities, intent on taking advantage of the state's swift criminal trials and high rate of executions.

Linked to 10 killings in the Washington, D.C., area and three more in the Deep South, Muhammad, 42, was charged with the shooting death of Maryland engineer Dean H. Meyers at a Manassas, Va., gas station. Similarly accused of another sniper killing, Malvo, 18, is on trial in nearby Chesapeake, Va. Malvo pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity after admitting his role in the killings.

On Monday, Jonathan Shapiro, one of Muhammad's lawyers, criticized law enforcement's "swirling" momentum toward the death penalty. His partner, Peter B. Greenspun, bitterly condemned Ashcroft for "saying we're going to go to Virginia, where Mr. Muhammad is going to be killed." Justice Department officials declined to comment.

The lead prosecutor in the case, Prince William County Commonwealth Atty. Paul F. Ebert, countered that the sniper, as "the worst of the worst," deserved his fate. Muhammad, he said, "took pleasure in killing people, and that's the kind of man that doesn't deserve to be in society."

For three weeks, Muhammad directed Malvo in a killing spree that unfolded with military precision. The 1991 Persian Gulf War veteran and his partner stalked highways and shopping malls around Washington, armed with an assault rifle and other tools of the sniper's trade, targeting innocent victims.

On Monday, Muhammad was a subdued convict in a suit and handcuffs, head drooping as seven women and five men delivered the maximum penalty in each of four criminal charges against him.

The panel members, numbed after five weeks of grisly morgue photographs and heart-rending testimony from shooting survivors and relatives of the dead, crowded onto the courthouse steps Monday. Their unanimous vote for the death penalty had only come after a struggle.

During a straw vote Friday, the jurors said, several of them had leaned toward sparing Muhammad's life. Some balked at the idea of capital punishment; others were shaken by home movies played by the defense that showed Muhammad cavorting with his young children.

But after a weekend of soul-searching and an hour of deliberations Monday, they all agreed on death.

"I can't say we're all good with the decision," juror Heather Best-Teague said, her voice breaking. "But we knew we had made the right one."

The killer's "total lack of remorse seemed to cap it all for us," added juror Dennis Bowman. He was among several jurors who at first voiced concerns inside the jury room that Muhammad's execution would only add to "the cycle of violence" that had left bodies and rifle shells strewn from a Louisiana beauty shop parking lot to a suburban Maryland bus depot.

Bowman was wracked by doubts so piercing that he lost sleep over the weekend. But worried that Muhammad might kill again in prison -- either in an escape attempt or while lashing out at authorities or other prisoners -- Bowman changed his mind.

"I worried that even if you locked him up, put him in the deepest hole, he's still going to find the opportunity to harm someone, whether it's prison personnel or somebody else," Bowman said.

During four days of testimony last week in Muhammad's sentencing hearing, prosecutors presented evidence that suggested the killer already had tried to escape from a Virginia jail. A Prince William County jail guard told how he had found Muhammad dressed only in sheets, wedged against a cell wall out of the sight of passing guards. The guard theorized Muhammad intended to overpower a guard and steal his uniform in order to escape.

FBI agents also detailed how Muhammad had stocked a stolen laptop hard-drive with maps of locations where he and Malvo appeared to have planned more shootings before they were captured on Oct. 24, 2002. The possible sites included elementary schools in Maryland and residential communities in North Carolina and in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, not far from where both trials have been underway over the last month.

Jury foreman Jerry Haggerty, a former Navy pilot and judge advocate, said he was shaken by the idea that the Norfolk, Va., area was also at risk. "We came to realize any area on the Eastern Shore was potentially a target," he said.

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