Death sentence is confirmed for serial sniper Muhammad

Va. judge says jury reflects `conscience of community,' sets Oct. 14 execution date

March 10, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

MANASSAS, Va. - John Allen Muhammad, the ex-soldier turned suburban sniper whose attacks took 10 lives in and around the nation's capital, was sentenced to death yesterday in a courtroom packed with the tearful relatives of those he killed.

Prince William County Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. upheld a jury's recommended sentence of death and set an execution date of Oct. 14 - a date certain to be delayed as the appeals process begins. Millette said he found "overwhelming evidence" that Muhammad was behind the sniper rampage.

"These offense were so vile they were almost beyond comprehension to the community," Millette said in court, adding that the jury made the right call in finding for death. "I believe in capital cases, more than anything else we do in the justice system, the jury reflects the conscience of the community."

He then looked to Muhammad, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and looking unkempt with a thatchy beard, and said, "I'm going to confirm the jury's verdict and sentence you to death."

More than 50 relatives of the sniper victims, in the courtroom for the sentencing, exhaled as the judge announced his decision. One woman pumped her fist. Others cried and hugged. Muhammad, standing at the defense table, showed no emotion. Given a chance to make a statement moments earlier, he had again asserted his innocence.

"I stand before you today, just like I said at the beginning of the trial, I had nothing to do with this case," he told the judge, his voice in a whisper. "I understand what my lawyers are trying to do. You do what you have to do and let me do what I have to do to defend myself."

The sentencing ends the last chapter of Muhammad's first trial and provides some finality for the victims' families, many of whom attended the trial in Virginia Beach last fall and who wanted to be in the courtroom yesterday to represent those they had lost.

"Justice is always limited, but it is done to the extent it can be," said Bob Meyers, whose brother Dean H. Meyers, 53, was killed at a Sunoco station north of Manassas on Oct. 9, 2002. "There are no winners today. This is not a victory, but yet it was something that had to be done, and it was done right."

The sentence is automatically appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court. The typical length of time between sentencing and execution in Virginia is five years.

Muhammad's teen-age accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, will be sentenced today in Chesapeake, Va., to life in prison without parole. Because Malvo's jury rejected a death sentence, the judge, under state law, must impose the jury's sentence of life imprisonment.

It has not been decided what will happen next to the two men, although they are likely to remain in Virginia for more trials. Prosecutors said they would be meeting with victims' families yesterday and will take their wishes into account.

Muhammad, 43, and Malvo, 19, were both convicted of two counts of capital murder last year in the deaths of Meyers and FBI analyst Linda Franklin, respectively, during a sniper rampage in October 2002 that left 10 people dead, three wounded and millions living in fear. Many of the shootings were carried out from the trunk of a car, which was modified so a gun barrel could point through the back of the vehicle.

In yesterday's two-hour sentencing hearing, lead prosecutor Paul B. Ebert pointed to the randomness of the shootings and noted that a 13-year-old Bowie boy had been among the wounded.

"The type of person he is, is that of a coward - hiding in a car at a distance," Ebert said.

`Deserve some closure'

Later, sweeping his hand across the rows of families gathered, Ebert said: "These folks in this courtroom, and many others, deserve some closure, deserve some solace, something in their soul, so they know that at least this person had the same fate their loved ones had."

Lawyers plea for his life

Both of Muhammad's defense lawyers made pleas for his life, arguing that there is still value and worth to his existence and noting that equity demands Muhammad receive the same sentence as Malvo - life in prison. They said that Muhammad, given time, could become a better person.

"I've represented a lot of bad guys - guys who when you look them in the eye, you see evil," said defense attorney Peter D. Greenspun. "I've spent dozens, hundreds of hours with Mr. Muhammad and, speaking personally, that's not what I see."

Later, in comments to reporters outside the courthouse, Ebert disagreed. The prosecutor said, "Counsel for the defense says he sees no evil in his client. I can't agree with that. I see nothing but evil."

Defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro asked the judge to consider the good in Muhammad's life before the shootings began: He grew up poor in Louisiana, graduated from high school and spent 10 years in the Army, serving in the Persian Gulf war and obtaining an honorable discharge. He later started a family and began a car-repair business in Tacoma, Wash.

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