When the murder spree started, I didn’t really believe someone could commit such sociopathic acts. As the deaths mounted, my disbelief was cast aside… I was concerned about L– and her family. What if the sniper operated in Philly, too? As with everyone else in the country, I was relieved when the suspects were captured. As with everyone, I was shocked that a teenager was involved.
The horrific nature of their crimes cries for capital punishment. It’s a difficult decision. If I was a relative of a victim, I there is no doubt I’d ask for the death penalty. However, as a bystander, I don’t have an emotional investment, and my anti-capital punishment values kick in. How does one respond?
Matthew Barakat, AP Writer
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – A jury convicted John Allen Muhammad of capital murder Monday, concluding he used a rifle, a beat-up car and a teenager who idolized him to kill randomly and terrorize the Washington area during last year’s sniper spree.
The jury will now decide whether the Army veteran should be sentenced to death or life in prison. The penalty phase was to begin in the afternoon. Muhammad, 42, stood impassively as the verdict was read, looking forward. Two jurors held hands, and two others were crying. The jury deliberated for 6 1/2 hours before convicting Muhammad of two counts of capital murder. One accused him of taking part in multiple murders, the other — the result of a post-Sept. 11 terrorism law — alleged the killings were designed to terrorize the population. Muhammad is the first person tried under the Virginia law.
Muhammad was found guilty of killing Dean Harold Meyers, a Vietnam veteran who was cut down by a single bullet that hit him in the head on Oct. 9, 2002, as he filled his tank at a Manassas gas station. He was also found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and use of a firearm in a felony.
The victim’s brother Robert said he believes Muhammad deserves the death penalty: “I must say that I can’t think of too many more heinous crimes than this one.”
Fellow suspect Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, is on trial separately in nearby Chesapeake for the killing of Linda Franklin at a Home Depot in Falls Church. He also could get the death penalty. Malvo’s attorneys are pursuing an insanity defense, arguing that the young man had been “indoctrinated” by Muhammad.
In all, the two men were accused of shooting 19 people — killing 13 and wounding six — in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., in what prosecutors said was an attempt to extort $10 million from the government. The verdict came after three weeks of testimony in which a series of victims and other witnesses graphically — and often tearfully — recalled the horror that gripped the Washington area during the sniper attacks.
Ten people were killed in the region and three were wounded, many of them shot as they went about their daily tasks: shopping at a crafts store, buying groceries, mowing the lawn, going to school.
At the height of the killings, the area was so terrified that sports teams were forced to practice indoors, people kept their heads down as they pumped gas, and teachers drew the blinds on their classroom windows. At one point during the spree, a handwritten letter was found tacked to a tree near the Virginia restaurant where a man was shot, and it included the chilling postscript: “Your children are not safe anywhere at any time.” A tarot card left near a shooting outside a school declared: “Call me God.”
“Hopefully, the jury’s decision will help bring some comfort to the families whose lives were senselessly taken and those who were injured,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in Washington.
Prosecutors presented no direct evidence that Muhammad fired the .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle used in the killings, but said it didn’t matter. They described Muhammad as the “captain of a killing team” and portrayed him as Malvo’s father figure, a stern and controlling man who trained the teenager to do his bidding.
“That is a young man he molded and made an instrument of death and destruction,” Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert said in closing arguments.
Ebert said that Muhammad came off as a polite man, but that his calm demeanor masked a calculating and sinister side: “He’s the kind of man who could pat you on the back and cut your throat.”
The defense said the evidence did not prove Muhammad directed the shootings or fired the gun in the Meyers slaying. Attorney Peter Greenspun said in his closing statement that prosecutors had “pounded” jurors with gory photos and heartbreaking witness testimony to persuade them to make an emotional decision.
The prosecution provided several key pieces of evidence linking Muhammad to the shootings, including ballistics tests that linked the rifle found in his car to nearly all the shootings, and testimony that his DNA was on the weapon. Prosecutors also presented a stolen laptop discovered in the beat-up blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice that contained maps of six shooting scenes, each marked with skull-and-crossbones icons.
Prosecutors said the car had been adapted so someone concealed inside the vehicle could fire a rifle through a hole in the trunk. The case took a strange twist on the first day of the trial when Muhammad fired his court-appointed attorneys and began representing himself. He delivered a rambling opening statement and cross-examined witnesses for one day before handing the defense back to his lawyers.
For the next three weeks, witness after witness recounted the effects of the attacks in chilling detail. William Franklin recalled being splattered with his wife’s blood outside a Home Depot. A retiree described seeing a woman slumped over on a bench, blood pouring from her head. The only child shot during the spree testified: “I put my book bag down and I got shot.”
Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore said the verdicts validate Virginia’s law that subjects terrorists to the death penalty. “The anti-terrorism law worked. It was written in response to and in the aftermath of 9-11, but it was written broadly enough to include individuals who terrorize a community,” said Kilgore, a Republican who presented the legislation, passed in 2002. “The snipers terrorized an entire state. People were afraid to go to the mall, afraid to take their kids to school, afraid to pump gas.”
Meanwhile, at Malvo’s trial Monday, an FBI agent testified that the suspect refused to identify himself and was defiantly silent when he and Muhammad were arrested in October 2002 at a highway rest stop.
FBI agent Charles Pierce, leader of the team that arrested the pair, described how agents took Malvo and Muhammad by surprise at the rest stop in Maryland, smashing two of the windows in their car. Malvo was asleep in the front seat and Muhammad was in the back, Pierce said.
Pierce said he asked Malvo four times to give his name, and Malvo refused.
“I would characterize it as defiant silence,” Pierce said.