The Virginia Supreme Court on Friday upheld sniper John Allen Muhammad’s murder convictions and death penalty for carrying out what it called a “cruel scheme of terror” that left 10 people dead around the Washington area.
The court brushed aside arguments that Muhammad could not be sentenced to death under state law because he was not the triggerman. And it rejected claims that the post-Sept. 11 terrorism law under which he was prosecuted is unconstitutionally vague.
“If society’s ultimate penalty should be reserved for the most heinous offenses, accompanied by proof of vileness or future dangerousness, then surely this case qualifies,” Justice Donald Lemons wrote.
Muhammad was convicted on two counts of capital murder for the shooting of Dean Harold Meyers in Virginia during the three-week killing spree in October 2002.
‘I’ve had my fingers crossed’
“I’ve had my fingers crossed all these months,” said Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert, who prosecuted Muhammad. “Now I can uncross them.”
Peter D. Greenspun, a lawyer for Muhammad, said he and co-counsel Jonathan Shapiro were “extremely disappointed.”
“There is a significant dissent, so we are going to review the entirety of the decision and continue to do everything we can to protect John Muhammad’s interests and save his life,” Greenspun said.
The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the conviction based on the terrorism law but split 4-3 in upholding the conviction under the triggerman rule.
The court’s majority found that even if Muhammad’s teenage accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, pulled the trigger, Muhammad was eligible for the death penalty as an “immediate perpetrator” of slaying.
‘Cruel scheme of terror’
“Muhammad, with his sniper team partner, Malvo, randomly selected innocent victims,” Lemons wrote. “With calculation, extensive planning, premeditation and ruthless disregard for life, Muhammad carried out his cruel scheme of terror.”
The dissenting justices said Muhammad’s actions — positioning the sniper team’s car and telling Malvo when to fire — “were of the same character as those of a lookout or wheelman in a robbery.”
The court rejected Muhammad’s claim that “intimidation” and other terms should have been defined in the terrorism statute. Muhammad’s lawyers also had argued that the law was improperly used against Malvo because it was intended to address crimes like the Sept. 11 hijackings.
“Nothing in the words of these statutes evinces an intent to limit its application to criminal actors with political motives,” the court said.
The defense also argued that prosecutors improperly offered conflicting theories at the trials of Muhammad and Malvo. Muhammad’s prosecutors portrayed him as a manipulator who molded his then-17-year-old cohort into a killer. Malvo’s prosecutors, seeking to counter Malvo’s insanity defense, depicted the teenager as a willful, independent thinker.
But the court said that two approaches were not inconsistent.
Malvo is serving life in prison without parole for the slayings of a businessman and an FBI analyst.