Justice served

December 26, 2003

FOR ALL the rhetorical zeal and melodrama exhibited by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft on the prospect of executing the Washington-area snipers, justice demanded a different outcome. A Virginia jury did not recommend the death sentence for the convicted shooter, teen-ager Lee Boyd Malvo.

The 12 men and women didn't get swept up in the hysteria and horror of the murderous spree perpetrated by Mr. Malvo and his surrogate father, John Allen Muhammad. The jurors in Chesapeake, Va., rendered a life-without-parole sentence, based on the evidence before them. A just sentence.

That's the way the system is supposed to work. The jurors had to set aside their collective revulsion at the cruelty of the snipers' systematic executions and consider the decision-making capability of a teen-ager. Although pained by the anguish and loss felt by the victims' families, jurors correctly focused on the youthful age of Mr. Malvo at the time of the murders - he was 17 - and the forces at play that led him to kill repeatedly and with seemingly no remorse.

Mr. Malvo's lawyers deftly laid the groundwork that spared his life: abandoned and abused by his mother as a child, a boy shuttling between the emotional and physical landscapes of two countries, a relationship with a manipulative older man.

There are many who would argue that the sniper case is just the kind of case for which the only sentence is death. From the time of the arrests, Mr. Ashcroft viewed the murders as a capital case. The ability to sentence the snipers to death drove his decision to wrest control of the case from local prosecutors in Maryland - the home of most of the victims - and determine its venue.

The wrangling over who would be able to execute the culprits was unseemly in the wake of the senseless deaths staining so many suburban sidewalks. But Mr. Ashcroft didn't see it that way; he chose Virginia over Maryland because it could execute a teen-ager under its law and boasted the most executions, second only to Texas, since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

But the jurors considering young Mr. Malvo's fate didn't rush to a decision; they chose life without parole only after serious, rigorous and considered debate. As juror Deborah Moulse told Sun reporter Stephen Kiehl, "We all lost sleep, and we all agonized."

They realized that Mr. Malvo's handiwork was Mr. Muhammad's, that his ability to raise a rifle again and again, even at a child younger than himself, was not his alone.

The jurors showed mercy where neither the man nor his teen-age accomplice could. The life-without-parole sentence for Mr. Malvo doesn't minimize his actions or his responsibility for them. On the contrary, it says this person deserves to be punished, and punished for the rest of his natural life. It allows the possibility for Mr. Malvo, as he ages and, it is hoped, matures, to reach an awareness of the sanctity of life.

It recognizes that a teen-ager cannot be judged as we would judge an adult. Neither the teen-ager's youthful appearance nor the season of the year can undercut that truth.

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