Jury considers 2 portraits: a cold killer or loving dad

Muhammad trial closes

deliberations begin today in death penalty phase

November 21, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - The life of John Allen Muhammad was placed last night into the hands of a jury that must reconcile two conflicting portraits of the convicted sniper - one of a gentle and polite man who loved his children, another of a remorseless killer who orchestrated a deadly rampage that terrified millions.

The jury of seven women and five men was shown gruesome autopsy photos of the sniper victims, their bodies bloodied and destroyed, in an attempt to show the vileness of Muhammad's crimes. But the jury also saw home videos of Muhammad playing with his children - videos that showed a laughing, loving father.

"There once was a good father, a good husband, a good friend," said prosecutor James A. Willett in his closing argument. "That person no longer exists. That person is dead. That person was murdered by the embodiment of malice that sits before you today. That person was murdered by this individual just as clearly and completely and viciously as everyone else."

Prosecutors said Muhammad is "the worst of the worst," exactly the sort of person for whom the death penalty is reserved, and asked the jury to impose the ultimate punishment.

The jury's other option is life in prison without possibility of parole. The panel will begin deliberations this morning.

Defense attorneys invoked the names of Muhammad's three children, his family and his friends in telling jurors that the death penalty mostly punishes those who remain. The attorneys did not try to say that Muhammad's life is more valuable than those he is convicted of killing. Rather, they said that such a balancing is the wrong way to see the case.

"If you put the loss of lives and grief on one side, and John's life on the other, the scale is out of kilter. Death is automatic," said attorney Jonathan Shapiro. "But in another view of the world, a scale is just not the right device. A human life does not get put on a scale. Rather, all life is important, and we don't rush to kill in order to right a wrong."

Muhammad was convicted Monday in the Washington-area sniper shootings that left 10 dead and three wounded in October 2002. Prosecutors have linked him to other killings, from the Pacific Northwest to the Deep South. Yesterday, they showed photos of those victims - in life and in death - to jurors.

In making a case for the death penalty, Virginia prosecutors must prove more than Muhammad's guilt. They must show that it is likely that Muhammad will commit violent acts in the future or that his conduct was "outrageously and wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman," according to the instructions given the jury.

If jurors find that either condition exists, they can impose the death penalty, though they are not required to do so.

Defense attorneys emphasized to the jurors their right to vote their conscience and not to be bullied by other members of the panel. The death sentence must be unanimous. If even one juror refuses to vote for death, then Muhammad would be sentenced to life.

"You have the right, each and every one of you, by yourselves, to say no to death," Shapiro said in his 50-minute closing argument, his voice earnest as he pleaded for life.

"If you believe in your heart that death is simply inappropriate, then you may so declare. It can be the sort of reason you can't even express, except to feel in your heart it's not the right thing to do."

The closing arguments, which began after 4:30 p.m. and lasted until almost 7 p.m., were delivered in a hushed courtroom packed with victims' families and Muhammad's friends and relatives as the trial reached an emotional climax.

The sisters of victims Linda Franklin and Hong Im Ballenger sat next to each other and laced their arms. They broke down and comforted each other as the killings were recounted.

All told, prosecutors said, the sniper victims left behind 21 children, from infants to adults. They said the home videos shown earlier in the day of Muhammad cavorting with his children - bathing them, bowling with them and playing soccer with them - were an insult.

"I think it's outrageous and shameless that he would prey upon your sympathies with his very own children," Willett said. "What about that list of schools we found in the car from Baltimore? Good father? Loving parent? Decent human being? He doesn't care about children or human life or anything that God put on this Earth except himself."

As has been the case throughout the trial, Muhammad showed little emotion as prosecutors railed against him. But when his attorney read in a quiet voice three letters Muhammad's young children sent him last week, Muhammad hung his head, rubbed his hands in front of him on the defense table and appeared to blink back tears.

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