Sniper suspect Muhammad guilty
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – In a verdict that could cost him his life, a stone-faced John Allen Muhammad was convicted Monday of using a high-powered rifle, a beat-up car and a teenage sidekick to murder people at random and terrorize the Washington area during last year’s sniper attacks.
The jury immediately began hearing evidence on whether the 42-year-old Army veteran should get the death penalty or life in prison. The penalty phase is expected to last several days.
“We reserve the death penalty for the worst of the worst,” prosecutor Richard Conway told the jurors. “Folks, he still sits right in front of you without a shred of remorse.”
Muhammad stood impassively as the verdict was read, looking straight ahead with the same enigmatic look he had throughout the trial. Two jurors held hands, and two others wept. Family members of victims held hands and wiped away tears.
The jury deliberated for 6 ½ hours over two days 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 FBI analyst 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 men’s trials were moved some 200 miles to southeastern Virginia out of concern that it would be too hard to find an impartial jury close to the nation’s capital because the sniper attacks had terrorized so many people.
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.
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.”
Jurors also saw several stomach-turning crime-scene photos, despite protests by the defense that the pictures were gratuitous.
Ten people were killed in the region and three were wounded in the spree, 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, a handwritten letter was found tacked to a tree near a 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.”
The prosecution case included ballistics tests that connected the .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle found in Muhammad’s car to nearly all the shootings; testimony that his DNA was on the weapon; and a stolen laptop computer discovered in the blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice that contained maps of six shooting scenes, each marked with skull-and-crossbones icons.
The gun was found strapped behind the back seat of the Caprice, which prosecutors said Muhammad converted to “a killing machine.” The back seat was unhinged so that it could flip up and provide access to the trunk. The windows were tinted, and a hole was cut in the trunk, allowing a person to fire the rifle through it.
Prosecutors presented no direct evidence that Muhammad pulled the trigger, but said it didn’t matter. They described Muhammad as the “captain” of a two-man “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,” prosecutor Paul Ebert said in closing arguments.
The defense appeared focused on saving Muhammad from the death penalty, arguing that 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 testimony in an appeal to their emotions.
In the penalty phase, prosecutors must prove one of two factors for the jury to recommend a death sentence: that Muhammad would present a future danger or that the crimes demonstrate “a depravity of mind.”
If the jury recommends a death sentence, the judge can reduce it to life without parole. If the jury recommends life, its decision is binding.
Defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro argued that Muhammad’s life should be spared, and told jurors they will be surprised to hear what a good father Muhammad was and how so many people respected him.
“Your decision will put John Muhammad into a box of one sort or another. One is made of concrete, one is made of pine,” Shapiro said.
The defense won a victory when Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. ruled that only Meyers’ family could offer victim-impact testimony to the jury. Prosecutors had hoped to put on testimony from other families, too.
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 with questions like, “Have you ever seen me shoot anyone?” He questioned witnesses for one day before handing the defense back to his lawyers.
At the Malvo trial Monday, jurors heard testimony about the shooting of the FBI analyst.
But unlike the jury at Muhammad trial, Malvo’s jurors did not get to hear the 911 tape of that call, in which William Franklin wails and his voice rises as he tries to explain to the dispatcher that his wife had been shot in the head.
Judge Jane Marum Roush listened to the tape with jurors out of the courtroom and agreed with the defense that the tape was prejudicial.