Muhammad jurors deliberate four hours without a decision

Questions indicate panel weighing issues carefully

work to resume Monday

November 22, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl and Gail Gibson | Stephen Kiehl and Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Jurors weighing the life of convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad deliberated for four hours yesterday without reaching a sentence - and questions they posed to the judge at the end of the day indicated they weren't about to make a quick decision.

A note the jury sent the judge shortly after 12:30 p.m. made it appear there was some division among the panel of seven women and five men, who must decide whether to sentence Muhammad, 42, to death or life in prison without parole. The note said, "If the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision, what happens then?"

Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. told the jurors that they should keep working toward a unanimous verdict when they resume deliberations Monday morning. He also told them that they could continue to deliberate Tuesday, even though he had said court would be recessed that day for the Thanksgiving holiday.

"We really want to try to get a unanimous decision," Millette told the jury. "You have all weekend to think about it."

It does not appear, however, that the jury has reached an impasse. Millette was told by the jury's foreman - a 55-year-old retired Navy captain - that the panel's question about a unanimous decision was based merely on curiosity and not on any troublesome circumstance in the jury room.

Jurors were told as they went into deliberations that Virginia law requires that a death sentence be unanimous. If even one person holds out and the jury is hung, the default sentence is life in prison without parole. The Muhammad jury wasn't told that fact when they were given instructions before going into deliberations, but prosecutors who are well aware of the law looked grim as they left the courthouse yesterday.

"If they can't come to a decision, it's over," said lead prosecutor Paul B. Ebert, the commonwealth's attorney in Prince William County, Va.

The U.S. Justice Department gave Ebert the case based on the reasoning that it would be easier to get a death sentence in Virginia than Maryland, where most of the killings occurred.

Before jurors left the courtroom just after 1 p.m. yesterday, one juror - a 45-year-old former naval intelligence officer - asked if she could do some legal research over the weekend. Millette told her she could not. But she persisted in her questions, asking if she could research death penalty cases other than the Muhammad case.

"You're not allowed to do any research," Millette said. "Don't do any legal research. Don't do any looking on the Internet. You have to base your decision entirely on what you've heard in this case."

The juror who posed the question - who works for the Center for Naval Analyses and has three school-age children - said during jury selection six weeks ago that she had some qualms about the death penalty but would be able to vote for it if the evidence called for it.

"I have conflicting opinions," the woman had said during jury selection. "I can see both sides. Part of me thinks it's wrong. Part of me agrees with it. It's the law. I am law-abiding."

The jury convicted Muhammad this week on two counts of capital murder for his role in the sniper attacks that left 10 dead and three wounded in the Washington region last October. Prosecutors have also linked him to killings in Alabama, Louisiana and Washington state.

To reach a sentence of death, the jury must find there is a probability Muhammad would commit violence in the future and that his crimes were "outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman." But even if jurors agree such conditions exist, they are not required to impose death.

The jury has heard five weeks of testimony in the case, with almost 500 total pieces of evidence introduced by the prosecution and defense and more than 150 witnesses placed on the stand.

Jurors appeared most moved by testimony from the families of sniper victims. Several cried when the hysterical 911 call of William Franklin, whose wife, Linda Franklin, was killed outside a Northern Virginia Home Depot, was played in court.

But jurors also paid close attention when Muhammad's former wife took the stand this week and read letters written to him by their three young children - letters in which the children say they will love their father "no matter what" happens. Some jurors also smiled when the defense showed home videos of Muhammad playing with his children.

Legal experts said the questions jurors posed were a positive sign for the defense that they are taking their task seriously. One expert also questioned the judge's prodding for a unanimous decision, saying it could put undue pressure on jurors who may be holding out for a life sentence.

"I would hate for a juror who is convinced that a death sentence is inappropriate to yield to or abandon that position for the mere sake of unanimity," said Steven D. Benjamin, a criminal defense lawyer in Richmond. "A deadlock is a win for the defense."

Benjamin also said that jurors should be sequestered for the weekend because the case is at a critical juncture and because they have indicated a desire to do outside research. But neither prosecutors nor the defense team made a request to sequester yesterday.

Yesterday morning, after the jury was excused from the courtroom at 9:06 to begin deliberations, Millette stepped off the bench and walked to the lawyers' tables. He shook the hands of the three defense attorneys and three prosecutors and thanked them for putting on such strong cases.

"You exceeded even my expectations," Millette said to lead defense attorney Peter D. Greenspun, whom the judge selected to handle the case.

Millette referred to the prosecution as "the dream team" and said to Ebert, the lead prosecutor, "Best job you've ever done, Paul."

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