Death Sentence for Muhammad in Sniper Trial

By JDAO Published: November 25, 2003


IRGINIA BEACH, Nov. 24 After deliberating for just over five hours, a jury here sentenced John A. Muhammad to death on Monday for directing the Washington-region sniper killings, expressing dismay with what jurors saw as his steely lack of remorse for the attacks last fall that left 10 people dead.

The decision ended an emotionally wrenching six-week trial that included a two-day appearance by Mr. Muhammad as his own lawyer, the graphic re-creation of bloody crime scenes in three states and the District of Columbia and the tearful testimony of numerous witnesses and victims' relatives.

As a clerk read the sentencing decision, Mr. Muhammad, 42, stood calmly at attention, looking straight ahead and barely blinking. Several women on the 12-member jury seemed to shed tears as the decision was announced.

"It's never a pleasure to have to ask for the death penalty," Paul B. Ebert, the commonwealth's attorney for Prince William County, said after the sentence was announced. "But there are cases that deserve the death penalty, and this certainly was one of them."

Mr. Muhammad's court-appointed lawyers, looking weary after losing what was always a long-shot case, expressed disappointment.

"Death has been swirling around the courtroom for weeks," Jonathan Shapiro, a defense lawyer, said. "We have no quarrel whatsoever with these conscientious jurors who applied the law as given to them. We do and will continue to have deep disagreement with a system that sanctions any kind of killing."

The sentence was a victory not only for Mr. Ebert's team, but also for Attorney General John Ashcroft, who decided last year to take the case away from prosecutors in Montgomery County, Md., site of 6 of the 10 killings, and send it to Prince William County, where Mr. Muhammad was prosecuted for a killing at a gasoline station in Manassas.

Mr. Ashcroft said at the time that a major reason for his decision was Virginia's record on capital punishment. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Virginia has executed 89 inmates and Maryland, 3.

Unlike Maryland, Virginia allows capital punishment for juveniles, making Lee Malvo, who has been charged as Mr. Muhammad's co-conspirator and who was 17 during the shootings, eligible for the death penalty. He is on trial in Chesapeake on charges of capital murder. The presiding judge here, LeRoy F. Millette Jr. of Circuit Court, scheduled a final sentencing hearing on Feb. 12, when Mr. Muhammad's lawyers are expected to ask for a reduced sentence. Such actions are highly unusual.

As in all death penalty cases in Virginia, the State Supreme Court will automatically hear Mr. Muhammad's appeal of his sentence. Experts consider the seven-member court to be conservative, and it does not often overturn jury verdicts.

If the sentence is not overturned, Mr. Muhammad will be able to appeal to the United States Supreme Court. In Virginia, an appeal typically takes three to seven years from the imposition of a death sentence until an execution. Because the sniper killings were in several jurisdictions, Mr. Muhammad is likely to face trials in other states.

Mr. Muhammad was sentenced to death for two counts of capital murder in the killing of Dean H. Meyers, 53, in October in Manassas. One count was under a new state antiterrorism law; the second was for committing multiple murders in three years. Mr. Muhammad was also sentenced to 10 years for conspiracy to commit murder and 3 on a gun charge.

"It would take a great leap of faith to think justice wasn't served today," one of Mr. Meyers's three brothers, Bob, said as he smiled after the jury's decision.

Several jurors, speaking to reporters after the decision, said that they had become hardened toward Mr. Muhammad because of his impassive demeanor throughout the trial and that they had interpreted that as a lack of remorse or feeling of responsibility for the crimes.

"I tried to pay attention to his demeanor the whole time," Robert L. Elliott, 28, a medical technician, said. "I looked for something in him that might have shown remorse. But I never saw it."