Two key factors guided jurors in verdict, they say

Malvo's age, susceptibility to Muhammad's influence ultimately spared his life

December 24, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

CHESAPEAKE, Va. - When the 12 men and women who were to decide whether Lee Boyd Malvo would live or die for his crimes began their deliberating on Monday, the two factors that guided their decision were the two factors hammered home by the defense team: Malvo's youth and his susceptibility to indoctrination.

In interviews last night, jurors said that Malvo's age - 17 at the time of the sniper shootings - and a childhood scarred by abuse and neglect, made him an easy target for John Allen Muhammad, the former Army solder and mastermind behind the attacks. Malvo had to take responsibility, jurors said, but he did not deserve the ultimate penalty.

"It was his age, his background, his environment," said juror Deborah Moulse, a 53- year-old sales representative. "The influence of John Muhammad - that was the biggest thing that helped me make my decision. He truly controlled his life."

When deliberations began Monday, Moulse was among the seven jurors who voted for life in prison without parole. Five voted for death. After several hours of discussion, the vote had not changed, and jurors went home Monday night as divided as when they began their work.

By yesterday, those who favored a life sentence were not budging, and some of those who favored execution said they thought a unanimous verdict for the death sentence was impossible. The final vote was cast at mid-afternoon, and this time it was unanimous - 12-0 for life in prison without parole.

One juror who had initially voted for death said he can live with the verdict but wished it went the other way.

"I think he was a calculating, coldblooded, heartless killer and he showed no remorse or regard for human life," said juror William Hurdle, 70, a retired teacher. "I'm not disappointed with it at all, but it's not the way I would have voted. ... Anytime he wanted to, I think he could have stopped this killing."

Jurors said they were not aware that Muhammad was sentenced to death by a Virginia Beach jury on Nov. 24, two weeks after the Malvo trial began, when jurors were instructed to ignore news of both sniper trials. The question of Muhammad's sentence did not come up in deliberations, but some jurors said they were relieved when they learned of it yesterday.

In a surprising parallel, the initial vote of the Muhammad jury when it began its sentencing deliberations was 7-5 for death - exactly the opposite of the Malvo jury's first vote. In both cases, the early majority won out, though not without substantial argument and pain.

"We all lost sleep, and we all agonized," Moulse said. "We took in everything that was said and dug deep at our mind and our hearts and came up with a decision."

Moulse said she expected that some families of the sniper victims would not be happy with the verdicts, and indeed several relatives said at a news conference yesterday that they were disappointed and had been hoping for a death sentence. Through tears, some said they feared Malvo would find a way to harm others in the future.

"I am not at all pleased with the verdict. I think he should have gotten the death penalty," said Vijay Walekar, whose brother, Premkumar A. Walekar, was killed while pumping gas in Aspen Hill on Oct. 3, 2002. "What if he runs away? That is the question I face now."

Friday's victim impact testimony was among the most emotional and painful moments of the trial, said jurors, who cried along with those on the witness stand who had lost their relatives. But Moulse said it was Malvo's situation in the end that swayed her.

"I truly feel for them [the victims' relatives], but I had to look at the position of Malvo and not their feelings in the end," Moulse said. "I don't mean to seem that we don't care, but Malvo was the one on trial."

Legal experts said the jury's explanation of their decision validated the defense team's strategy, which from the beginning focused on saving Malvo's life rather than proving his innocence. Jurors said that defense lawyer Craig S. Cooley's closing argument, in which he talked about compassion and love, was touching.

"Craig is an extraordinarily likable person," said Steven D. Benjamin, president-elect of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "That's a very real dynamic and I've got to think that his obvious compassion for his client had to make it more difficult for jurors to want to sentence Malvo to death. It would have been as if they were condemning Cooley's own son."

Jurors said emphatically yesterday that the coming Christmas holiday did not push them toward mercy or force them to make a quick decision. But lead prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr. said outside the courthouse that it's an old prosecutor's adage not to try a case during Christmas week.

One other veteran prosecutor, Paul B. Ebert, agreed that the holidays may have been a factor. Ebert, the commonwealth's attorney in Prince William County, Va., who successfully sought a death sentence for Muhammad, said he wasn't surprised by the verdict, given many factors.

"It's the Christmas season and you've got a young person who looks younger than he is and all those factors - I'm sure they had something to do with the sentence," Ebert said.

Jurors said they didn't put their lives on hold during the trial - some insisted their holiday shopping was done and their homes were decorated - but they admitted the trial had taken a toll and they were glad for the opportunity, finally, to heal.

"The process was so agonizing," Moulse said. "I'm just relieved it's over with."

Sun staff researcher Elizabeth Lukes contributed to this article.

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