Muhammad jurors recess deliberations

Sniper trial panel takes weekend off after 4 hours

November 15, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - In a windowless room crammed with evidence, jurors deliberated the guilt or innocence of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad for four hours yesterday without reaching a verdict. They went home for the weekend at 1 p.m. and will resume work Monday morning.

If the Circuit Court jury finds Muhammad guilty of capital murder, they will hear a sentencing phase of the trial to determine his punishment. The only two options would be the death penalty or life in prison without parole. The jury could also find Muhammad guilty of first-degree murder, which does not carry a potential death sentence, or he could be found not guilty.

Meanwhile, the trial of Muhammad's alleged accomplice in last fall's sniper shootings, Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, was on hold yesterday because the Muhammad jurors had much of the evidence that is needed for that case. Prosecutors introduced more than 400 pieces of evidence in the last month and put 138 witnesses on the stand.

The Muhammad jurors will keep the evidence until they reach a verdict, no matter how long it takes, according to court officials. Sniper task force members took photographs of the evidence before it was given to the jury, so the photos can be used in the Malvo trial if necessary.

Many observers expected that the Muhammad jury of seven women and five men wouldn't need much time to reach a verdict. Even the trial judge, LeRoy F. Millette Jr., noted his desire to get the entire trial - including the sentencing phase - over by Thanksgiving.

In comments from the bench after the jury left the courtroom, Millette said, "If we could get this thing done by Thanksgiving, I would appreciate it, and I think the jurors would, too."

Defense attorneys also appeared to be looking ahead to sentencing. They filed two motions yesterday morning after the jury began deliberations -- one seeking to eliminate some of the state's evidence from the sentencing phase and one seeking to exclude victim impact statements from the families of all the sniper victims except Dean H. Meyers.

Meyers was killed Oct. 9 last year as he pumped gas into his car at a Sunoco station north of Manassas, Va. Muhammad is on trial for that killing - one of 10 in October last year that spread fear throughout the Washington region. Other killings have been introduced at trial, however, because prosecutors say they were part of a terror plot to extort $10 million from the government.

Muhammad faces two counts of capital murder - one under the state's multiple killings law, which requires that prosecutors show he was an immediate perpetrator in the Meyers killing, and one under the anti-terrorism law.

Muhammad's attorneys waited for the verdict yesterday in a small room by the courthouse cafeteria that has been converted into their office for the trial. They would not hazard a guess as to when the jury might come back.

"I don't know what to think," said defense lawyer Jonathan Shapiro. "I've given up trying to predict what juries will do."

Millette came back into the courtroom shortly before noon to tell the lawyers that the jury had a question: They wanted to know if they could have a tape recorder to play a 911 call. The evidence also includes tapes of calls to the Rockville Police Department and sniper hot line.

"This is a question we should have anticipated," the judge said. He asked the lawyers if the jury should be provided with other such materials, and lead prosecutor Paul B. Ebert suggested a videocassette recorder so the jury can watch a taped re-enactment of how a gun could be fired from the trunk of a Chevrolet Caprice.

The re-enactment was produced by the Fairfax County Police Department using Muhammad's 1990 Caprice - the one he was arrested in with Malvo on Oct. 24 last year.

Defense attorney Peter D. Greenspun objected to providing jurors with a tape recorder or VCR. "The only problem is it allows them to highlight that [evidence] as opposed to someone's testimony, for which they have to use their memory," Greenspun said.

But Millette overruled the objection, saying, "Anything in evidence they should have an opportunity to review."

Two tape players were provided to the jury, but it appeared that neither was the right size for the tape they wanted to play, said prosecutor Richard A. Conway. He said prosecutors would work over the weekend to find an appropriate tape player.

Legal experts said the sheer volume of evidence and number of witnesses in the case could be slowing deliberations. They also said it's possible a few jurors are giving weight to the defense argument that there is no evidence proving Muhammad was the triggerman in any of the killings.

But experts agreed there's no telling what a jury will do.

"The 911 calls - what does that have to do with the time of day, except maybe it shows some kind of terror?" said Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland Law School professor and former associate U.S. attorney general. "If they are diligent, it's perfectly understandable they will come to the conclusion that everybody anticipates, but it will take more time than you think."

The jurors, who are not being sequestered, were brought back into the courtroom at 1:02 p.m. yesterday, and the judge reminded them of the court's instructions to avoid discussing the case with anyone or reading media accounts. Millette wished them a pleasant weekend and asked them to return promptly Monday morning.

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