A jury on Monday found John Allen Muhammad guilty of murder in the first sniper case to go to trial, concluding he used a rifle, a beat-up car and a teenager who idolized him to kill randomly and terrorize the Washington area during last year’s sniper spree. The jury will now decide whether the Army veteran should be sentenced to death or life in prison. The penalty phase was to begin in the afternoon.
MUHAMMAD WAS convicted of two counts of capital murder. One accused him of taking part in multiple murders, the other — the result of a post-Sept. 11 terrorism law — alleged the killings were designed to terrorize the population. Muhammad is the first person tried under the law.
Muhammad was found guilty of killing Dean Harold Meyers, a Vietnam veteran who was cut down by a single bullet that hit him in the head on Oct. 9, 2002, as he filled his tank at a Manassas, Va., gas station. He was also found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and use of a firearm in a felony.
The victim’s brother Robert said afterwards that he believes Muhammad deserves the death penalty. “I must say that I can’t think of too many more heinous crimes than this one,” he added.
Muhammad, a 42-year-old Army veteran, stood impassively as the verdict was read, looking forward. Two jurors held hands, and two others were crying.
Jurors spent Friday and part of Monday coming to their verdict. They were to begin the sentencing portion of the trial later Monday, deciding whether Muhammad should get life in prison or death.
Prosecutors presented no evidence that Muhammad fired the .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle used in the killings, but said it didn’t matter. They described Muhammad as the “captain of a killing team” and portrayed him as Lee Boyd Malvo’s father figure, a stern and controlling man who trained his alleged accomplice to do his bidding.
The prosecution did provide several key pieces of evidence linking Muhammad to the shootings, including testimony that his DNA was found on the rifle. Prosecutors also presented a stolen laptop discovered in his 1990 Chevrolet Caprice that contained maps of six shooting scenes, each marked with skull-and-crossbones icons.
The defense said the evidence didn’t prove Muhammad directed the shootings or fired the gun in the Meyers slaying. Attorney Peter Greenspun said in his closing statement that prosecutors had “pounded” jurors with gory photos and heartbreaking witness testimony to persuade them to make an emotional decision.
Earlier Monday, prosecutors said at a hearing that Muhammad had tried to escape last spring from the Prince William County Jail.
Turning aside defense lawyers’ arguments, Circuit Judge LeRoy Millette Jr. ruled that if Muhammad were found guilty, prosecutors would be allowed to present evidence of the attempt to the jury during the sentencing phase.
Defense lawyers said there was no hard evidence that Muhammad tried to escape, and any flimsy evidence of an attempt would be highly prejudicial to their client.
An attempted escape might persuade a jury that Muhammad presents a future danger, one of the factors it weighs in considering the death penalty.
Prosecutor James Willett told reporters that Muhammad attempted to escape on March 23 but declined to comment further.
Meantime, in nearby Chesapeake, testimony was under way Monday in the trial of 18-year-old Malvo.
Malvo’s lawyers told jurors they would not suggest authorities had the wrong man, but that he is innocent by reason of insanity because he was brainwashed by Muhammad.
Malvo is charged in the Oct. 14, 2002, slaying of Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot.
Like Muhammad, Malvo is accused of killing more than one person and terrorizing the Washington, D.C., region in a bid to extort $10 million from the government.
In all, the two men were accused of shooting 19 people — killing 13 and wounding six — in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Ten of those killed were in the D.C. area and its suburbs. Two others were slain in Atlanta, and one in Baton Rouge.
Jurors in Muhammad’s trial, which began Oct. 14, learned relatively little about Muhammad’s personal life, while Malvo’s attorneys stressed the personal during their nearly two-hour opening statement Thursday, showing a photograph of Malvo holding a Bible.
They described his unhappy upbringing in Jamaica, with his mother frequently leaving him with relatives or strangers as she moved around looking for work.
“They are really making a play to save his life” by planting the idea, even before the sentencing phase that would follow a conviction, that Malvo was a child who was manipulated, said Andrew Sacks, a defense attorney who has handled prominent murder cases in Virginia.
Sacks said it could be difficult for the defense to undermine what appears to be an overwhelming amount of evidence against Malvo, including DNA and fingerprint evidence and a confession to police in which prosecutors say Malvo bragged about the shootings.
So, “even if that (insanity) defense doesn’t fly, it gives them the opportunity to begin sensitizing the jury to the human side of their client,” Sacks said.
That approach could work, given that the jury includes several people with ties to children, including a teacher, a retired teacher, a retired assistant principal and a lunchroom monitor, said Donald Smith, an Old Dominion University sociology professor who studies jury behavior.
The strategies of the defense attorneys for the two suspects differ outside court as well.
Muhammad’s attorneys have said little to reporters, while Malvo’s attorneys hold daily news conferences.
Smith said his research has shown that jurors frequently violate court instructions to avoid media accounts while a trial is still in progress.
“I don’t mean to impugn any of these jurors” in the Malvo case, Smith said. “They may be exceptional. But my feeling is that most of these people probably are reading the newspaper, watching the news, going about their lives as they usually do.”
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