Horrific images took toll on jury

Jurors: The painful, wrenching testimony in the sniper trial left its mark on those who decided Muhammad's fate.

November 26, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - On many nights in the murder trial of John Allen Muhammad, juror Elizabeth S. Young would not go directly home to her husband and three children. Instead, she would take long walks on the beach or sit in coffee shops and think about the difficult decision before her.

The heart-rending testimony from the families of the sniper victims and the gruesome crime scene photos began sinking in as the trial rolled on. Even though Young had been in the Navy, she had never seen what a high-powered rifle could do to a person's face - one of many horrific images that left their mark on her memory.

Those images and her time sitting on a jury deliberating whether Muhammad should live or die made her see the world in a different way.

"It just made life more precious," Young, 45, said in an interview yesterday. "I would eat dinner or watch a video, and I would just be staring off. I also felt unsafe. I'd be pumping gas and think somebody could gun me down right here. I felt that vulnerability."

When the jury began deliberations Friday morning and an anonymous vote was taken on index cards, Young was among the five jurors who voted to sentence Muhammad to life in prison without parole. The other seven jurors voted for death, she said. That morning, Young was one of the most outspoken proponents against a death sentence.

"I wanted to break the cycle of violence," said Young, who added that she may become an anti-death penalty activist. "We had just seen six weeks of the most horrible grief and bloodshed and killing, and just because it's a state-sanctioned killing doesn't make it any better."

But what brought Young and the other jurors around to the death sentence they arrived at Monday was the fear that even if Muhammad was locked up for the rest of his life, he might find a way to get out and kill again. That fear was rooted, they said, in the look on Muhammad's face when his former wife took the stand last week.

Mildred Muhammad testified that her husband had repeatedly threatened to kill her. After she was awarded full custody of the couple's three children in September 2001, she took them to Clinton, in Prince George's County, to protect herself and start a new life. During her two hours of testimony, John Muhammad looked as he never had before in the trial, jurors said.

"When his wife was on the stand, it looked like pure hatred on his face," said jury foreman Jerry M. Haggerty, 55, a retired Navy captain. "I have no doubt in my mind that if given the chance, he would try to do harm to her. I also believe that anybody who stood in the way, if given the chance, he would not hesitate to do harm to them."

Young described the look on Muhammad's face as one of "overpowering hatred." It was, she said, the only time she felt afraid of him. But she added that she also felt uneasy when the jury was taken to view the Chevrolet Caprice in which Muhammad was arrested, and the jurors walked around the car as he stood a few feet away.

"I felt horribly uncomfortable," Young said. "I hadn't seen him standing up, up close, before. I realized, gosh, this is a pretty big and powerful person."

A former Navy intelligence officer who describes herself as highly analytical, Young said her conversion to favoring a death sentence came over the weekend, when she realized that she couldn't let her personal, moral disagreement with the death penalty get in the way of following the law. Yet she also felt the law provided little guidance.

"I was stunned to get the final instructions and find it really came down to an individual, moral decision," she said. "So how in the world can we make a unanimous decision on something that splits the country down the middle? I didn't think we'd be able to do it."

Still, she felt that "if ever there's a case deserving the death penalty, this is it." She read all the ballistics and autopsy reports - a grim, difficult task - and was moved by the reports on those shot in the head. She said she believed those reports showed Muhammad used more force than needed to kill, one of the aggravating factors required for the death sentence.

When the jury reconvened at 9 a.m. Monday, Young changed her vote to death. So did Dennis Bowman, a 52-year-old hardware store employee who was worried that Muhammad was so crafty he would find a way to kill someone in prison. The vote then was 9-3 in favor of death.

Haggerty, the foreman, told the jurors to be ready to make a case for their position. After an hour of discussion, the jury room grew quiet, and Haggerty called for another vote. This time it was 12-0 for death.

"Most of us, when we came in Monday, were fairly certain it would take a while to come to agreement," Haggerty said. "It would not have surprised me if it had gone past Thanksgiving."

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