Thursday, October 14, 2004

A Prince William County prosecutor whose office is next in line to try sniper Lee Boyd Malvo for capital murder said yesterday that arguments that juveniles should not be eligible for the death penalty are “psychobabble.”

“Defendants are individuals and juveniles are individuals, and whether something happens the day before or after the day someone turns 18 is hardly dispositive of the appropriate sentence,” said Richard A. Conway, the Prince William County assistant commonwealth’s attorney who helped prosecute sniper John Allen Muhammad last fall.

Mr. Conway’s comments came after the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday wrestled over whether to allow states to execute killers who committed their crimes as minors.

Nineteen states allow capital punishment for juveniles, and more than 70 people who committed crimes as 16- and 17-year-olds are on death row. The question for the justices is whether those executions are unconstitutionally cruel.

The high court on Wednesday heard arguments in a 1993 case involving the kidnapping and the slaying of a Missouri woman. Christopher Simmons, then 17, was sentenced to death for the murder, but the state’s highest court overturned the sentence last year. A younger teen also convicted in the case was sentenced to life in prison.

The court is expected to rule on the case next spring. If the court upholds the legality of the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-olds, Prince William County prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty against Malvo.

Last winter, Malvo, now 19, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the Oct. 14, 2002, fatal shooting of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, 47, at a Falls Church Home Depot. Malvo was 17 when he committed the crime.

Lawyer Seth P. Waxman, who represented Simmons, argued Wednesday that the death penalty is the wrong penalty for juveniles because of “the transient psychosocial characteristics that rage in adolescents.”

Mr. Conway called that idea “overgeneralized psychobabble.”

“I listened to a solid week of purported mental-health experts testify that Malvo was so brainwashed that he didn’t know right from wrong, and that’s hogwash,” said Mr. Conway, who attended some of Malvo’s trial in Chesapeake, Va., late last year.

If the Supreme Court rules that 16- and 17-year-olds should not be eligible for the death penalty, Malvo likely will not be prosecuted again, Mr. Conway said.

Malvo’s attorney, Craig Cooley, said yesterday that he has “great faith that [the court] will allow us to join the world in universal condemnation of the juvenile penalty.”

“It is where this country ought to be, and I believe a majority of justices will bring us there,” he said.

Malvo has entered into a plea agreement with prosecutors in Spotsylvania County, Va. Under the agreement, he will accept a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole and plead guilty to capital murder for killing Kenneth Bridges at a Spotsylvania County gas station and attempted capital murder for wounding Caroline Seawell outside a Michaels craft store in Spotsylvania County.

The plea agreement will be considered at an Oct. 26 hearing in Spotsylvania Circuit Court.

Mr. Conway said he hopes it does not come to that.

“It would be a disappointment in a larger sense than merely the Malvo case, having seen what some individuals are capable of doing before the age of 18,” Mr. Conway said. “I think it would be a bad decision to remove the potential of a death sentence by judicial fiat. Certainly [Malvo’s] case is one that cries out to be examined and decided by a jury. The Chesapeake jury spoke, but that’s not to say that other jurors would agree.”

Muhammad and Malvo have been linked to the 13 sniper shootings that killed 10 and wounded three in the Washington area in October 2002. Both men also have been linked to nine other shootings, five fatal, nationwide.

Last fall, Muhammad, 43, was sentenced to death in the Oct. 9, 2002, fatal shooting of Dean H. Meyers, 53, at a Manassas gas station.

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