Jurors say Muhammad should be put to death

Lack of remorse noted, and fear he'd eventually `harm someone else'

Wrenching time for jury

Formal sentencing set for Feb. in sniper case

November 25, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - After tearful jurors decided he could spread harm even "if he's locked up in the deepest hole," John Allen Muhammad stood dry-eyed and unflinching yesterday as he heard the jury say he should be put to death for waging suburban sniper warfare that took 10 lives during three weeks of terror last fall.

The jury of seven women and five men handed their verdict to the judge at 10:50 a.m., after a little more than five hours of deliberations. Some dabbed their eyes with tissues as the clerk of the court read the two death sentences against Muhammad, one for each count of capital murder against him.

Lead prosecutor Paul B. Ebert called the sentences "a victory for society." For Ebert's team and for some families of the victims, the unanimous death sentences were a gratifying end to the six-week trial, which included emotional testimony about the sniper shootings that wounded three and caused widespread fear around the nation's capital in October last year.

Bob Meyers, the brother of one of the sniper victims, exhaled heavily and put his arm around a relative as the sentence was read. Muhammad's lead attorney, Peter D. Greenspun, swallowed and removed his glasses. Muhammad stared at the clerk, blinking, his hands clasped in front of him.

In interviews, jurors said they were at first about evenly split on whether the Persian Gulf war veteran should be executed or sentenced to life in prison. But after they considered the possible future danger he posed, his lack of remorse and the nature of his crimes, they said, they agreed on a death sentence faster than they agreed about his guilt last week.

"You can see the wheels turning in his head," said juror Dennis Bowman, 52, a hardware store clerk who had initially voted to spare Muhammad's life. "He's going to bide his time and somewhere down the road, in the next 20 years, if he's locked up in the deepest hole, sooner or later he's going to find an opportunity to harm someone else. And that's what brought me around to vote for the death penalty and put an end to this once and for all."

Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. will formally sentence Muhammad, 42, in February. Under Virginia law, a judge has the option of reducing a jury's recommended death sentence to life in prison. But that is rare and not expected in this case, which was steered to Virginia by the federal government because of the state's record in securing death sentences.

Muhammad will join 27 other inmates on Virginia's death row at Sussex I State Prison in Waverly.

With the state's rapid appeals system, the average time in Virginia between sentencing and execution is about five years. Virginia death row inmates are executed by lethal injection unless they choose electrocution.

"Death has been swirling around this courthouse for weeks and weeks," said Jonathan Shapiro, one of Muhammad's attorneys, adding that the defense team had no quarrel with a conscientious jury that applied the law as it was given to them. "We do and continue to have deep disagreement with a system that sanctions any kind of killing."

Prosecutors and some relatives of those who died in the sniper attacks said the sentence was appropriate and just. Ebert, speaking on the courthouse steps, repeated that Muhammad is "the worst of the worst." He stood surrounded by 15 prosecutors and sniper task force members who have worked on the case for the past year.

Ebert said he isn't sure why Muhammad and his suspected accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, came to the Washington region. One theory is that Muhammad wanted to terrorize his former wife, Mildred, who took their children to Clinton, Md., two years ago in a move that precipitated Muhammad's unraveling. Another theory is that Muhammad wanted to extort $10 million from the government.

"One thing's for sure," Ebert said. "They took pleasure in terrorizing people, they took pleasure in killing people, and that's the kind of man who doesn't deserve to be in society."

The trial took its toll on the jurors. Heather M. Best-Teague said she went home and cried every night. Elizabeth S. Young said she might become an anti-death penalty activist. The foreman, Jerry M. Haggerty, said he hadn't had a full night's sleep since the trial began and that he doesn't expect to get one soon.

Jurors said they saw something of themselves in the faces and lives of those were gunned down in so many ordinary places - the civil engineer who was pumping gas, the FBI analyst who was loading purchases for her new home into her car, the computer consultant who was holding his wife's hand in the parking lot of a suburban steakhouse.

They say they also saw the faces of their children in Iran Brown, the 13-year-old boy who took the stand to testify about being shot in the abdomen outside his middle school on a clear day last fall and who told his aunt as she rushed him to a medical center, "I love you."

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