- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH — John Allen Muhammad was convicted yesterday of masterminding and carrying out the sniper shootings that terrorized the Washington area last year and now faces two possible sentences: life in prison or the death penalty.

“This is a case where the death penalty is the only appropriate punishment,” said prosecutor Richard A. Conway, Prince William County assistant commonwealth’s attorney, in the opening statement of the punishment phase of the trial, which began in the afternoon after the jury’s verdict was read at 11:56 a.m.

“We reserve the ultimate punishment — the death penalty — for the worst of the worst, and folks, he still sits there right in front of you without a shred of remorse,” Mr. Conway said.

The jury could begin deliberations on punishment as early as Thursday, and defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro punctuated his opening statement during sentencing with pleas for Muhammad’s life.

“Your decision will put John Muhammad in a box of one sort or another. One is made of concrete, and one is made of pine,” Mr. Shapiro said. “It is not necessary to extinguish one more life.”

As the court clerk read the verdicts, the 42-year-old Army veteran, dressed in the same beige sports jacket he has worn throughout the trial, stood expressionless with hands folded in front of him.

He swallowed and looked slightly shaken as he sat down after being found guilty of all four charges he faced: two counts of capital murder — one for masterminding an act of terrorism and one for killing more than one person in three years — conspiracy to commit murder and use of a firearm in a felony.

After three weeks of testimony, the jury of seven women and five men needed about seven hours of deliberation Friday and yesterday to find Muhammad guilty of the fatal shooting of Dean Harold Meyers, a 53-year-old Vietnam veteran fatally shot at a Manassas gas station on Oct. 9, 2002.

Relatives of shooting victims sat in the courtroom for the verdict, along with several law-enforcement officials who had helped with the sniper investigation.

Muhammad and fellow suspect Lee Boyd Malvo, on trial in nearby Chesapeake, have been linked to the 13 sniper shootings that killed 10 and wounded three in the Washington area in October 2002. They also have been linked to nine other earlier shootings in five states. Both trials were moved because of pretrial publicity.

Mr. Malvo is on trial in the Oct. 14, 2002, fatal shooting of Linda Franklin, 47, at a Falls Church Home Depot.

Prosecutors say the men were trying to extort $10 million from the government, and that Muhammad was intent on harming and possibly killing his ex-wife, Mildred, who lived in Clinton, Md., because she had custody of the couple’s three children.

Isa Nichols, the prosecution’s first witness during sentencing yesterday, was a business associate and friend of Mrs. Muhammad and said that after Mrs. Muhammad was given custody of her children, she tried to keep her location a secret from her ex-husband.

“Mildred felt he was going to destroy her,” said Mrs. Nichols, who also testified about the Feb. 16, 2002, fatal shooting of her 21-year old niece, Keenya Cook, who lived with her. Prosecutors said Muhammad took part in Ms. Cook’s slaying, using a friend’s handgun, but they did not present ballistics evidence to prove a link.

During the sentencing phase of the trial, prosecutors are required to prove that the defendant poses a threat of future dangerousness to society or that his actions were “wantonly or outrageously vile.”

This phase of the trial originally was expected to last at least a week, with two or three days of prosecution witness testimony followed by at least two days of defense testimony, then a prosecution rebuttal.

The trial’s timetable was accelerated, however, when Prince William Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. limited victim-impact testimony to only Mr. Meyer’s killing. Judge Millette told prosecutors he was concerned about putting too much strain on spouses, siblings and children of victims who might have to testify in Mr. Malvo’s trial and in subsequent trials if either Mr. Malvo or Muhammad is tried in another jurisdiction.

“If the court were to allow victim impact testimony from victims of other crimes … then the potential range of witnesses is endless,” defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro argued successfully to Judge Millette.

In addition to presenting victim-impact testimony, prosecution witnesses will tell the jury that Muhammad attempted to escape from the Prince William Detention center on March 23 and that he clogged his toilet intentionally to flood his prison cell.

“His behavior while incarcerated is the single best indicator of how he will behave if he is given life in prison,” said James A. Willett, Prince William assistant commonwealth’s attorney.

The judge also said he would allow prosecutors to present evidence during sentencing that Muhammad expressed anti-Semitic sentiments and fired several shots into a Tacoma, Wash., synagogue. The judge ruled that prosecutors cannot tell the jury that the defendant expressed anti-American views.

Mr. Conway said the prosecution’s evidence during sentencing would show the jury Muhammad’s “callous disregard for human life.”

Mr. Shapiro defended his client as a man who still holds “worth and value.”

“He was a man who made people happy. … This man had people who loved and admired him. For years, John Muhammad was a human being,” Mr. Shapiro said.

Prosecutors presented evidence in the guilt portion of Muhammad’s case for 16 of the 22 shootings he and Mr. Malvo have been linked to. Only 11 of the Washington-area shootings were presented, because ballistics tests could not conclusively link the first two shootings to the .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle found with the defendant at his arrest.

Without an eyewitness to the shootings, the prosecutors relied on circumstantial evidence such as the Bushmaster, a likely DNA match to Muhammad on one of the rifle sights, a laptop stolen from one victim that contained maps with routes and marking near and around the shootings, and the 1990 Chevrolet Caprice in which the suspects were captured.

The car, which prosecutors referred to as a “killing machine,” had been modified to conceal a shooter firing from the trunk through a hacksawed hole, and the back seat had been hinged to flip up, allowing a passenger to climb into the trunk from the back seat.

Defense attorneys argued that the prosecution’s case was based on “suspicion, speculation and innuendo” instead of hard evidence that proved Muhammad ever pulled the trigger in any shooting. Mr. Malvo confessed to several of the shootings on two occasions in the days after his arrest.

Muhammad’s defense argued that the defendant could not be found guilty of capital murder unless he were proved to be the triggerman. The prosecution argued that a “joint participant” could be convicted.

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