Sniper decision counters U.S. trend

Recommendation of death contrary to decline of capital punishment

November 29, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

The Virginia jury that recommended a death sentence this week for convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad hesitated at first. As they deliberated, some on the panel wondered whether it was right to add another killing to the sad list from last fall's sniper attacks. One woman wanted to know how capital punishment was weighed in other states or other countries.

Their pause reflected what has been a growing uneasiness with the death penalty across the country in recent years, from critical rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court to discoveries of wrongly convicted men on death row. But the jury's final decision - that Muhammad should be put to death - also showed how a single horrible case could refocus public opinion in favor of capital punishment.

"Before the sniper, the death penalty was sort of on the ropes," said Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor and former top-ranking official with the U.S. Justice Department. "These acts gave the death penalty a good name."

Securing a death sentence for Muhammad, 42, and his alleged accomplice, 18-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo, was the guiding factor behind the government's decision late last year that both men would stand trial in Virginia for the attacks last October that left 10 people dead and three wounded.

Although six of the victims were killed in Maryland, authorities determined that Virginia was more likely to win swift convictions and death sentences for the two suspects in the killings.

Virginia ranks second to Texas in the number of executions performed. And, unlike in Maryland, Virginia law allows capital punishment for defendants who were younger than 18 when the crimes were committed. Malvo, who is on trial in Chesapeake, Va., was 17 at the time of the attacks.

"These crimes are terrible. And, especially in the area where the crimes occurred, it was so keenly felt, that it may seem like the death penalty- if that punishment is available-then it seems to fit," said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C., research group that generally opposes capital punishment.

Dieter noted that the jury's decision in Muhammad's case was contrary to what has been a growing reluctance on the part of judges and juries across the country to sentence defendants to death. From 1995 to 1999, judges and juries handed out an average of 300 death sentences a year. In 2001, that number fell to 155, according to the center.

Supporters of the death penalty note that the decline coincided with a nationwide decrease in the number of murders. But opponents of capital punishment argue that juries are less willing to vote for death, influenced in part by stories of death row exonerations.

Even in cases where the defendant's guilt is not in doubt, there have been some recent high-profile death penalty exceptions.

In Washington state, prosecutors decided not to pursue a death sentence for Green River serial killer Gary Ridgway - who confessed to killing 48 young women, more than any other serial killer in the nation's history - because Ridgway agreed to provide information about the crimes and whereabouts of his victims' remains.

In Boston, former mob boss Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, who admitted to involvement in at least 10 murders, pleaded guilty last month to a multicount federal indictment to avoid death penalty charges in Florida and Oklahoma.

"It's not automatic, even in some of the multiple-victim cases, that the death penalty is achieved or even sought," Dieter said. "And that makes people wonder: Is it being applied evenly, across the board?"

No death penalty

Massachusetts is one of 12 states without capital punishment. In appointing a commission to consider whether the state should adopt its own death penalty laws, Gov. Mitt Romney said the threat of death penalty prosecution in another state was what swayed Flemmi to cooperate with the government and to provide investigators with information about Mafia activities and killings reaching back at least two decades.

Other states, however, have moved in the other direction.

Illinois lawmakers approved a series of changes this month to that state's death penalty system, which has been under scrutiny since then-Gov. George Ryan made national news by adopting a moratorium on executions after 13 death row inmates there were exonerated.

In Maryland, former Gov. Parris N. Glendening issued a death penalty moratorium while awaiting the results of a University of Maryland study, which found some racial disparities in its application. The moratorium ended this year under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who supports the death penalty.

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