- The Washington Times - Friday, October 24, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH — Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad is standing trial in connection with only one slaying, but prosecutors are presenting evidence from 15 other shootings to persuade jurors to render a death penalty, legal experts say.

“If [prosecutor Paul B. Ebert] goes through this trial and gets anything short of a death penalty, he will have lost the case,” said Joseph A. Bowman, a D.C. lawyer with capital-defense experience in Northern Virginia. “This is one in which the general public needs to feel some gratification. If this guy is not executed, the public will not be gratified.”

Mr. Bowman said Mr. Ebert also does not want to “underplay his hand” in the case.

Several lawyers following the proceedings, who asked not to be identified, said the testimony of witnesses and victims from across the country will bolster the prosecution’s case, which is based upon circumstantial evidence such as fingerprints, ballistics tests and extortion letters.

Mr. Muhammad is being tried on two capital murder charges in the Oct. 9, 2002, shooting of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, at a gas station in Manassas. One count is under the state’s new antiterrorism law, the other for killing more than one person in three years. Both charges carry the death penalty.

In most capital murder cases, evidence of additional “bad acts” committed by defendants can be presented only after they have been found guilty. That evidence is then presented during the trial’s penalty phase, in which the jury sentences the convict to death or life in prison without parole.

Mr. Ebert, the Prince William County commonwealth’s attorney, convinced the court during pretrial arguments that presenting evidence about the other shootings is essential to prove the two capital murder charges, particularly the charge of killing more than one person in three years.

“He’s made the whole trial a sentencing phase,” Mr. Bowman said of Mr. Ebert, adding that he considers proving 15 other shootings as excessive.

Mr. Muhammad, 42, and fellow suspect Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, have been linked to the 13 sniper shootings in the Washington area that killed 10 and wounded three last October. They also have been linked to nine other shootings, five fatal, across Washington, Arizona, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia last year.

Defense attorneys Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro have not objected to the presentation of evidence from the D.C.-area shootings. But Mr. Greenspun argued in court this week that five shootings in September 2002 — in Clinton and Brandywine in Prince George’s County, in Montgomery, Ala., and in Baton Rouge, La. — are irrelevant to the prosecution’s case.

Prosecutors presented evidence on all five of those shootings this past week.

Mr. Muhammad’s decision to represent himself Monday and Tuesday allowed the state to quickly present the evidence from those crimes. He lacked the legal knowledge and courtroom experience to make substantial objections.

Prosecutors say the sniper suspects used the first few shootings in September 2002 to improve their methods and to rob victims of the cash and equipment needed to execute the sniper shootings a month later. They presented evidence in:

• The Sept. 5, 2002, shooting of Paul R. LaRuffa, 55. He was shot six times by an unseen assailant with a .22-caliber pistol in the parking lot of his Clinton restaurant. He survived, but the assailant took $3,600 and a laptop computer from his car. The laptop was found in the Chevy Caprice in which Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo were arrested last year.

• The Sept. 15, 2002, shooting of Muhammad Rashid, 32. He was closing a Brandywine liquor store when two shots from a high-powered rifle narrowly missed him. An assailant, whom Mr. Rashid identified as Mr. Malvo, then approached from his left and shot him in the abdomen with the same pistol used to shoot Mr. LaRuffa.

• The Sept. 21, 2002, shootings of Claudine Parker, 52, and Kellie Adams, 24, in Montgomery, Ala. Mrs. Parker was killed with a shot from the Bushmaster rifle that is believed to have been used in the D.C.-area shootings and was found in the suspects’ car. Ms. Adams, who survived, also was shot with a high-powered rifle. A witness identified Mr. Malvo as their assailant.

• The Sept. 23, 2002, shooting of Hong Im Ballenger, 45, in Baton Rouge. Mrs. Ballenger was killed with a shot to her head outside a beauty-supply store she managed. The day’s receipts, between $300 and $1,000, were stolen.

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