- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH — Jurors in the trial of John Allen Muhammad were initially split over whether to recommend the death penalty, and one juror said yesterday they may have remained that way if they didn’t have a weekend to think things over.

“We had pretty much dug in our heels, but it was really good that we had the weekend,” Elizabeth S. Young, a former naval intelligence officer who had voiced her opposition to the death penalty, said in an interview last night.

Mrs. Young said she spent the weekend shopping with her daughter and going out to dinner with her husband. She said she hadn’t decided how to vote on the verdict until she arrived at the courthouse yesterday morning.

Caught between the biblical command not to kill and the state law’s requirement that a death sentence be considered in capital cases, Mrs. Young said she realized, “If we’re ever going to impose the death penalty, we need to impose it now.”

Mrs. Young, 45, is the daughter of an Episcopal minister who she described as “a socialist at heart,” a man who 20 years before he died moved to Europe because he didn’t believe in many of the things America stood for. In Europe, her father became a philosophy professor.

A mother of three children, Mrs. Young avoided reading about the trial thanks to her husband, a schoolteacher who each morning cut out all articles about the case from the newspaper before she read it. She said she knew serving on the Muhammad jury “would be life changing, and it was.”

“I would feel tearful sometimes, more emotional. And I felt scared, too. I had a sense of vulnerability I had never felt before. I just suddenly felt that the world wasn’t a safe place anymore,” she said. “I had always known that but never had it brought home like this.”

The trial also “has made me think about what a great country this is. We go to all this trouble to give someone a fair trial. … It made me proud to be an American,” she said. “All of a sudden, I feel that life is so precious.”

Still, her conflict over the death penalty is unresolved.

“It’s possible that I might become an anti-death-penalty activist in the future, but for now I feel I had to meet my obligations as a juror,” Mrs. Young told reporters outside the courthouse after the sentence was read.

Mrs. Young was the juror who on Friday asked Prince William Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. if she could do research on the death penalty over the weekend. Judge Millette denied that request, saying she had to make her decision based on what she had heard in the trial.

“When you actually sit down to consider it and realize what an incredible responsibility [the death penalty] is, I realized I didn’t have all the information I needed,” Mrs. Young said.

Mrs. Young said before the trial, she considered herself a “death-penalty agnostic” who knew the punishment was part of the legal system but chose not to think about it. During jury selection she told attorneys, “Part of me thinks it’s wrong, and part of me agrees with it.”

Several other jurors said it was hard to sentence Muhammad to death, even as awful as his crimes were.

“One of the jurors said, ‘Let’s end this cycle of violence. How many more bodies do we need to pile on this pile of bodies?’” said Dennis Bowman, a 52-year-old hardware-store worker. “Friday, I voted for life in prison and I spent a long weekend thinking about it.”

He changed his mind Sunday night when he determined that Muhammad would be a threat to others as long as he lived.

“What we have here is a homegrown MacGyver. You can see the wheels turning in his head,” Mr. Bowman said, referring to the television show in which the main character was a Secret Service agent who often turned mundane materials into weapons. Muhammad was found with a sharpened plastic, prison-issue spoon in his cell in September.

“If he’s put in the deepest hole, sooner or later he’s going to find the opportunity to harm someone,” Mr. Bowman said.

The jury convicted Muhammad on Nov. 17 on two counts of capital murder for the Oct. 9, 2002, slaying of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, at a Manassas gas station. Muhammad was found guilty of planning and coordinating an act of terrorism — the 13 Washington-area sniper shootings that left 10 dead and three wounded last fall — and killing more than one person in three years.

Last week, Muhammad’s attorneys tried to depict their client as someone who had the capacity for positive change.

Near the end of the trial, his attorneys showed jurors a home video of Muhammad playing with his children in 1992 when they were toddlers. Those images made the decision to recommend a death sentence difficult, some jurors said.

“The hardest thing, truthfully — the fact that he has children. And I know what it would be like to never see them again,” said Heather M. Best-Teague, a 31-year-old bartender and mother of a 12-year-old boy who was teary-eyed throughout the trial.

“The death verdict is an extremely difficult decision to make,” said Jerry Haggerty, the 55-year-old jury foreman and former naval officer whom Mrs. Young called “a presence … the best possible choice for a foreman that could ever be.”

Mr. Haggerty and Mr. Bowman said they lost a lot of sleep during the trial. But the overwhelming amount of evidence — which jurors combed through during deliberations in the guilt phase — eventually erased all doubt.

“In the end it was pretty overwhelmingly clear,” Mrs. Young said. She said the defense’s decision to show recent letters that Muhammad’s three children wrote to him reassured her that “his children were prospering.”

“I just thought that their mother would tell them all the right things, like, ‘Your father loved you very much, and something happened. He is not the person you knew,’” said Mrs. Young, whose own children are 11, 13 and 16. “I just think his children are better off without him.”

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