- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — Jurors decided Monday that John Allen Muhammad should be executed for masterminding the deadly sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington area for three weeks last fall.

As the verdict was read, Muhammad maintained the same unflinching demeanor he had shown through most of his trial. The jury deliberated five hours over two days before reaching the verdict against Muhammad, a 42-year-old Army veteran who had asked police to “Call me God” during the October 2002 spree.

The same jury had convicted him a week earlier of murdering Dean Harold Meyers, a 53-year-old man struck by a single bullet to the head on Oct. 9, 2002, as he filled his tank at a Manassas-area gas station.

The jury’s sentencing recommendation is not final. Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. can reduce the punishment to life in prison without parole when Muhammad is formally sentenced, but Virginia judges rarely do that. Sentencing was set for Feb. 12; Virginia death row inmates are executed by injection unless they choose electrocution.

The jury concluded that prosecutors proved both aggravating factors allowing the death penalty: that Muhammad would pose a danger in the future or that his crimes were wantonly vile. He was sentenced to death on both counts he was convicted of last Monday: multiple murders within three years and murder as part of a terrorist plot.

“As we said from the get-go, the death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst,” prosecutor Paul Ebert said. “We think Mr. Muhammad fell into that category and we think the jury agreed.”

Jonathan Shapiro, one of Muhammad’s attorneys, said the defense team had no problem with the jurors, “who applied the law as it was given to them.” But he added: “We have deep disagreement with any system that sanctions killing.”

Prosecutors had depicted Muhammad as a ruthless murderer who was “captain of a killing team” that included teenage co-defendant Lee Boyd Malvo. They presented evidence of 16 shootings, including 10 deaths, in Maryland, Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana and the District of Columbia.

“One thing’s for sure they took pleasure in terrorizing people,” Ebert said. “They took pleasure in killing people and that’s the kind of man that doesn’t deserve to be in society.”

Marion Lewis, 51, the father of sniper victim Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, said his relief at the jury’s verdict was tempered.

“Now I have to wait 10 or 15 years for the execution to happen,” he said. He added: “I don’t believe there ever can be any total closure for something like this.”

At the height of the killings, the area was so terrified that sports teams practiced indoors and people ducked down while fueling their cars. Some Virginia school systems closed for several days after police found a note at one shooting scene: “Your children are not safe anywhere, at any time.”

The jury also recommended the maximum sentences of 10 years in prison for conspiracy to murder and three years for using a firearm in a felony.

“It has been a little bit of a relief today when we finally reached our decision and … we knew we had made the right one,” juror Heather Best-Teague said. The hardest part with imposing the death penalty for her was “the fact that he has children. I know what it would be like to not ever see mine again.”

Malvo is on trial in nearby Chesapeake for killing FBI analyst Linda Franklin, 47, outside a Home Depot store in Fairfax County on Oct. 14, 2002.

When Muhammad and Malvo, were arrested on Oct. 24, 2002, several jurisdictions scrambled to prosecute them. Attorney General John Ashcroft decided to send them to Virginia to stand trial, citing the state’s ability to impose “the ultimate sanction.”

Only Texas has executed more people than Virginia since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 - 310 to 89. Virginia is one of 21 states that allow the execution of inmates who committed capital crimes as 16- and 17-year-olds. Malvo was 17 at the time of the shootings.

During the sentencing phase of the trial, defense lawyers sought to portray Muhammad as a caring family man, showing jurors a home movie in which he played with his children and encouraged them to take their first steps. Several witnesses also testified he had a loving relationship with his kids.

But prosecutor James Willett said “that person no longer exists.”

“He doesn’t care about children, human life or anything else God put on this earth except himself,” Willett said Thursday as he urged jurors to give Muhammad a death sentence.

The defense was barred from presenting any mental health evidence because Muhammad refused to be interviewed by the prosecutors’ psychiatrist. The defense had previously suggested Muhammad may have suffered from Gulf War syndrome, and his ex-wife said his behavior was much different after he returned from Operation Desert Storm.

Prosecutors offered no proof that showed Muhammad was the triggerman, but a mountain of circumstantial evidence linked him to the crimes. His DNA was found on the .223-caliber rifle used in the killings, and prosecutors said a laptop computer found in his car included maps of six shooting scenes, each marked with skull-and-crossbones icons.

Meanwhile, in Chesapeake, a judge ruled Monday that jurors in Malvo’s trial will be allowed to hear the remainder of a recorded interview with police in which the teenager bragged about his marksmanship

Jurors on Friday had heard four audiotapes of the interview, but defense attorneys objected to a fifth tape, contending the sound quality was so poor that the transcript was inaccurate.

Circuit Judge Jane Marum Roush said Monday she listened to the tape “many, many times” during the weekend and was satisfied that the transcript is accurate. She said prosecutors could play the tape and let the jury read the transcript.

In the interviews, Malvo admitted pulling the trigger in all the shootings, bragged about his shooting prowess and explained the sniper plan by weaving together the philosophical, logistical and nonsensical.

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