- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

John Allen Muhammad, 43, was sentenced to death by a Prince William County judge yesterday for the Oct. 9, 2002, killing of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, one of 10 persons slain by a Washington sniper 18 months ago.

Muhammad continued to protest that he had “nothing to do” with the shootings.

Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr., who rejected an appeal for a new trial, set Muhammad’s execution date, which will likely end up delayed for months or even years by the automatic appeals process, for Oct. 14 — two years to the day that Linda Franklin, 47, an FBI analyst, fell to a sniper’s bullet in the parking garage at the Falls Church Home Depot. John Lee Malvo will be formally sentenced today for her murder.

Muhammad, who has grown a beard since he was convicted in November, spoke briefly in court before his sentence was read, rebutting comments from his attorneys, Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro, who had argued that the hard circumstances of his life led him to murder.

“Just like I said at the beginning, I had nothing to do with this, and I’ll say it again, I had nothing to do with this,” Muhammad said. “I’m not here to make any excuse for nothing. I’m not angry. I’m not frustrated. I’ve had a wonderful life.”

Muhammad thanked his attorneys and Judge Millette, for showing him respect “as a man.” The 43-year-old Army veteran asked the judge to “do what you have to do and let me do what I have to do.”

Judge Millette, who said Muhammad’s crimes “were so vile that they were almost beyond comprehension to the community,” found Muhammad guilty on all four counts he was convicted of by a Virginia Beach jury last fall. Judge Millette also found Muhammad guilty of the aggravating factors needed for a death sentence and recommended execution in his verdict.

Muhammad was convicted on two counts of capital murder for the fatal shooting of Mr. Meyers, of Gaithersburg, at a Manassas gas station. One capital-murder count was for more than one murder in three years, and the second was for committing an act of terrorism. He also was convicted of conspiracy and illegal use of a firearm.

Muhammad and his attorneys now await an announcement from prosecutors on where he will face trial next. Muhammad and Malvo, 19, are tied to 22 shootings, 15 of them fatal, and prosecutors in Alabama and Louisiana have said they want to prosecute the pair. But Northern Virginia prosecutors have said they plan to try the snipers again in Virginia.

In the most likely scenario, the sniper trials will be flipped, said Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore yesterday during an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times. Muhammad would go from Prince William to Fairfax, and Malvo would go from Fairfax to Prince William.

Malvo was to be in Chesapeake, Va., this morning for his formal sentencing. The Fairfax County judge there cannot change the sentence of life in prison without parole that a Chesapeake jury recommended in December after he was convicted of Mrs. Franklin’s murder.

Prosecutor Paul B. Ebert, the Prince William County commonwealth’s attorney, said he would announce a decision on the snipers’ fate tomorrow.

Mr. Kilgore said he fully expects his office to uphold Muhammad’s conviction and death sentence throughout the appellate process. All capital-murder convictions automatically go to the state Supreme Court and then, if the conviction is upheld, to the federal court and possibly the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though Virginia death-row inmates often are executed within two to three years of their convictions, Mr. Kilgore said there is no way to tell how long it could take to execute Muhammad because of the multiple prosecutions possible in Virginia and elsewhere.

“This is new ground for us,” Mr. Kilgore said. He said Virginia would extradite the men to another state only under an agreement that when the appellate process for Muhammad in Virginia is exhausted, any proceedings elsewhere would be interrupted and Muhammad would be transported back to Virginia for his execution.

More than 50 family members representing 10 of the shooting victims who died attended yesterday’s sentencing, along with shooting survivor Paul J. LaRuffa, who was shot and robbed outside his Clinton restaurant on Sept. 5, 2002. Outside the courthouse after the sentencing, they said that the death sentence brought them some sense of closure, but that it will not erase their lingering pain.

“I never thought my sister would have been killed this way,” said an emotional Kwang Im Szuszka, sister of Hong Im Ballenger, 45, who was shot and killed in Baton Rouge, La., outside her beauty store on Sept. 23, 2002.

Ms. Szuszka talked about how she and her sister had come to the United States from South Korea with dreams for a better life. “What Muhammad did was inhuman. He deserves to die. He killed so many innocent people,” she said.

Nelson Rivera’s wife, Lori Lewis-Rivera, 25, was shot and killed while she was vacuuming a mini van for her employer at a Kensington gas station. Mr. Rivera said he and his daughter Jocelin, 5, have had difficulty coping with their loss.

“Sometimes,” Mr. Rivera said, “I just want to close my eyes and disappear.”

Andrea Walekar, 25, held a letter she wrote to Judge Millette, describing the impact of her father Premkumar’s death. Mr. Walekar, 54, was shot and killed at an Aspen Hill gas station on Oct. 3, 2002. Her father did not see her graduate from college last spring and will not see her be married some day, she wrote. The effect on her mother, Margaret, has been devastating.

“Her life has been so difficult without him, and every day, she cries for him and wishes he could come back into our lives. My father was her heart and soul, and they were still accomplishing their dreams and goals,” her letter said. “Now, that he is gone, a big part of her desire to live is gone.”

Isa Nichols, the aunt of Kenya Cook, apologized publicly to her own family for any responsibility they believe she may have had in Miss Cook’s death. Authorities believe that Miss Cook was the first person shot by Muhammad and Malvo, at Mrs. Nichols’ Tacoma, Wash., home on Feb. 16, 2002.

Mrs. Nichols had befriended and supported Muhammad’s ex-wife, Mildred, in her effort to reclaim the couple’s three children from her ex-husband in September 2001.

Bob Meyers, Mr. Meyers’ brother, was one of the last victims’ relatives to speak.

“There are no winners today,” he said. “This was not a victory. But yet it was something that had to be done, and it was done right.”

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