Convicted sniper to plead guilty to 2nd murder charge

Malvo hopes to avoid death penalty, lawyers say

September 25, 2004|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Teenage sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, hoping to avoid a death sentence by agreeing to spend the rest of his life in prison, plans to plead guilty to a second murder charge related to his 2002 killings and is expected to drop all of his appeals in an earlier conviction, his lawyers said yesterday.

The agreement to accept a life sentence from prosecutors in Virginia won't guarantee Malvo an escape from the death penalty because he still faces murder trials in other counties and states. And at least two prosecutors - in Prince William County, Va., and in Louisiana - have said they will seek Malvo's execution.

But some defense attorneys think the deal might be an acknowledgment from prosecutors that Malvo, who was 17 at the time of the sniper attacks in suburban Washington, might never be executed for his crimes because he was a juvenile. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case this fall that could abolish the death sentence for minors.

"The deal makes sense for everyone," said Steven D. Benjamin, a Richmond attorney and president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "It makes sense for the commonwealth because the constitutionality of the death penalty for juveniles is very much in question. And it makes sense for Malvo because I think the goal of his attorneys all along has simply been to save his life."

Malvo has not signed a written agreement with prosecutors, but one of his attorneys, Craig Cooley, said yesterday that Malvo has agreed to the deal and is expected to sign it Monday. A hearing in his case is scheduled for Oct. 26 in Spotsylvania County, Va., where Malvo is charged with capital murder for the killing Oct. 11, 2002, of Kenneth H. Bridges, a Philadelphia businessman who was shot while pumping gas at an Exxon station off Interstate 95 in Fredericksburg.

"I think he understands the realities of his circumstances," Cooley said.

A life behind bars

Malvo already faced a life behind bars. He was sentenced in March to two life terms for the killing of FBI analyst Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot near Falls Church, Va. Virginia's criminal justice system does not grant parole to inmates, and even its restrictive "geriatric parole" for elderly convicts will not be available to Malvo because he was convicted of a capital crime.

John Allen Muhammad, Malvo's accomplice and the purported mastermind of the killings, was convicted last year in the murder of Dean H. Meyers at a gas station in Manassas, Va. Muhammad, then 41, was sentenced to death. The two are linked to 15 killings in Maryland; Virginia; Washington, D.C.; Georgia; Louisiana; Alabama; and Washington state. Malvo originally confessed to pulling the trigger in nearly all of the killings but later named Muhammad as the triggerman.

More trials possible

Malvo's attorneys say he hoped that Muhammad would have minimized the teenager's role in the killings and helped him secure a reduced sentence, but Cooley said Malvo is now resigned to life in prison. His deal with prosecutors in Virginia does not require him to drop the appeals in his first conviction, but Cooley said he expects his client to stop fighting and focus on sparing his life should other prosecutions emerge.

"There certainly are jurisdictions that could try him for capital murder, but there's also a Supreme Court case that could prevent them from seeking the death penalty," Cooley said. "We don't know what the other jurisdictions will do. But in the trial he's facing now, we have a deal in place that will save his life."

`Horrendous' crimes

Victoria Snider, whose brother, James L. "Sonny" Buchanan, was killed Oct. 3, 2002, while mowing a lawn near White Flint mall in North Bethesda, said she is confident that prosecutors are doing all they can in the case and offered no criticism.

She said her family has stopped worrying about new details, aware that many more trials and sentences could still follow.

"I sat through his first trial, and I think his crimes were so horrendous that they certainly warranted the death penalty," Snider said.

"But I've also said, since he was convicted, that I was willing to accept whatever the jury thought was right.

"I don't always understand all the different proceedings and maneuvers in court, but that's how the system works. And thank God we have a system that works."

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