- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

Prince William County prosecutors plan to show jurors photographs of the shooting victims and detail the effects of a high-powered rifle shot on the human body when they try to prove that John Allen Muhammad was one of two triggermen involved in last fall’s sniper attacks.

The prosecutors will need to prove that Mr. Muhammad, 42, was “the instigator and moving spirit” behind the string of shootings that left 10 dead and three injured in the Washington area. The state must prove that the crimes are so vile that they merit the death penalty.

Prosecutors mentioned the photographs during arguments at Thursday’s court hearing, which in some ways was a preview of the state’s case against Mr. Muhammad.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, the physical impact a high-powered rifle shot has on the human body,” said James A. Willett, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney. “It’s profound and difficult to see.”

Mr. Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, have been linked to 13 sniper shootings, including 13 deaths, in the District, Maryland and Virginia from Oct. 2 to Oct. 22.

Mr. Muhammad is charged with two counts of capital murder in the Oct. 9 shooting of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, outside a Manassas-area gas station. Mr. Malvo faces two similar capital murder charges for the Oct. 14 shooting of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, 47, outside the Home Depot in Falls Church.

Mr. Muhammad’s trial is scheduled to begin in October.

The first capital murder charge against Mr. Muhammad explicitly allows the death penalty regardless of who pulled the trigger. But the charge falls under an antiterrorism law enacted after the September 11 attacks, and the law is subject to a challenge about its constitutionality.

Under the second capital charge, prosecutors must prove that Mr. Muhammad poses a threat to the community in the future and that his actions were “vile.” The word “vileness” is defined as actions that include “torture, depravity of mind, or aggravated assault toward the victim.”

During Thursday’s hearing, defense attorney Peter Greenspun argued that there is no evidence to prove the crimes fall under the legal definition of “vileness.” In particular, Mr. Greenspun argued that using a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, the weapon authorities say was used in the Meyers shooting, did not amount to excessive force.

Mr. Willett disagreed. “My professional admiration increases for Mr. Greenspun for his apparently sincere belief that the actions undertaken by the defendant were not vile,” he said.

Mr. Willett argued that not only was the high-powered rifle excessive, but that Mr. Muhammad’s intent was to terrorize the community to try to extort $10 million from the government.

“I think the court will feel that this was more than the amount of force needed to take a life,” Mr. Willett said.

He also argued that the way the random shootings were carried out — through a small hole in the trunk of the suspects’ 1990 blue Chevrolet Caprice — warrant the death penalty. “To skulk away to be free to commit that crime again is the essence of depravity,” he said.

Mr. Greenspun refuted Mr. Willett’s arguments. “He’s given you a preview of what he wants to argue — this was bad,” he told the court. “But that doesn’t fulfill the legal definition of vileness.”

Prosecutors and defense attorneys for Mr. Muhammad declined comment after the hearing.

Sometimes, a judge will not allow prosecutors to show jurors graphic pictures if the judge finds that the photographs will prejudice a jury.

But lawyer Rodney G. Leffler, who is former chairman of the Criminal Law Section of the Virginia State Bar, said he doesn’t think Prince William Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. will bar any evidence in this case.

“The Virginia Supreme Court, time and time again, has refused to allow a defendant to hide from the specifics of a crime, whether by exclusion of photographs or graphic testimony,” Mr. Leffler said. “I don’t think the defense has much of a chance of excluding that kind of evidence.”

Lawyer Joseph N. Bowman, who has defended several capital murder cases, said defense attorneys try to do all they can to stop the judge from allowing jurors to see such evidence. “Defense attorneys don’t like those photographs because they really, really convey the violence of the crime, better than any words,” he said.

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