Prosecutors Begin Case for Sniper’s Death
VIRGINIA BEACH, Nov. 17 — John Allen Muhammad was convicted Monday of masterminding the terrifying sniper attacks that gripped the Washington region last fall and now faces a possible death sentence.
Jurors deliberated for 61/2 hours over two days before reaching their verdicts just after 11:30 a.m., finding Muhammad guilty of two counts of capital murder in the death of Dean H. Meyers in Prince William County. He also was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and of a firearms violation.
Prosecutors began presenting evidence in the penalty phase of the trial, arguing to the same jurors that the crimes were wantonly vile and that Muhammad poses a future danger to society — claims that could result in a lethal injection.
Muhammad, who has shown very little emotion throughout his month-long trial, stood at attention as a clerk read the guilty verdicts at 11:57 a.m.
Two jurors wept as they were polled. One juror had trouble managing a weak “yes” as she appeared to struggle with her emotions. That juror, a 31-year-old bartender, has appeared emotional several times, weeping while listening to powerful 911 recordings and recoiling from bloody crime scene photographs. Other jurors looked to their left, where the relatives of Muhammad’s victims sat together, some shedding tears quietly.
Muhammad’s defense team stood solemnly as Muhammad was led out of the courtroom. Relatives of several sniper victims embraced in the gallery, and Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert stopped to hug victim Linda Franklin’s daughter, Katrina Hannum. Prosecutors and defense attorneys declined to comment on the verdict because the sentencing phase is in progress.
Muhammad’s attorneys now turn toward trying to save their client’s life. They told the jury they plan to show that Muhammad still has “worth and value.” Prosecutors, on the other hand, have begun to characterize Muhammad as a plotting killer with a “callous disregard for human life,” as they push the idea that a custody dispute with his ex-wife, Mildred, led him to commit multiple killings.
Sources said Mildred Muhammad is expected to arrive at the Virginia Beach courthouse Tuesday and is likely to take the stand by the end of the day. It would be the first encounter between the two since she won custody of their three children in September 2001 — an event that witnesses said changed and enraged John Muhammad. Witnesses also testified during the trial that he was trying to pinpoint her location in the Washington area just before the attacks began.
Although the jury’s decision brought an end to more than a year of legal strife, it did not begin to address the issue of why Muhammad indiscriminately shot innocent people, allegedly with the help of a teenage accomplice. Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, is on trial on identical charges in neighboring Chesapeake, and his attorneys have acknowledged that he was part of the sniper team.
Muhammad, 42, became the first person to be convicted under Virginia’s anti-terrorism law, which was enacted after Sept. 11, 2001. The law was written for terror masterminds such as Osama bin Laden, and its application to Muhammad is sure to become a point of appeal.
The verdicts indicate that jurors accepted both prosecution theories about the Oct. 9, 2002, slaying of Meyers, 53, at a Sunoco gas station north of Manassas. Jurors found that Meyers was killed as part of a terror plot and that he was one of at least two people whom Muhammad killed within three years. Although jurors did not have to specify what other slayings they believed Muhammad committed, evidence presented at his trial linked Meyers’s death to the Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle used in 16 shootings that killed 10 people.
The Bushmaster was found when Muhammad and Malvo were arrested in Muhammad’s aging blue Chevrolet Caprice, which was modified, prosecutors said, into a “killing machine.”
Prince William Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. had instructed jurors that they did not have to find that Muhammad fired the gun in any of the slayings, ruling that Muhammad had to be an “immediate perpetrator” or “joint participant” to be found guilty.
Prosecutors presented 138 witnesses in a comprehensive attempt to convince the jury that Muhammad directed the attacks in Maryland, Virginia, the District, Alabama and Louisiana. Ebert offered an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence that placed Muhammad or his car at or near crime scenes but had no evidence that Muhammad’s finger was ever on the rifle’s trigger.
Defense attorneys argued that no one saw Muhammad shoot anyone. They also said no one saw a shot come from the trunk of the Caprice, where a small, jagged, rectangular portal was hacked into the car’s frame to hold the barrel of the rifle. At worst, the attorneys said, Muhammad should have been treated as an accomplice, eligible only for life in prison.
Jurors apparently believed the attacks were part of an effort to terrorize, agreeing with prosecution arguments that Muhammad and Malvo left threatening notes at shooting scenes and intended to extort $10 million from the government to stop the killings. Although Malvo’s voice was heard on phone calls made to authorities, a digital voice recorder found in the Caprice contained a recording of Muhammad’s voice as well. That recording was characterized as a rehearsal for one of the phone calls.
The verdicts do not mark the end of Muhammad’s case. Jurors are now beginning to hear evidence about whether Muhammad should be executed or put into a Virginia prison for the rest of his life, and they will recommend a sentence to Millette.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Richard A. Conway called Muhammad “the worst of the worst” in asking jurors to sentence him to death, saying the death penalty is the only appropriate punishment in the sniper case.
“He still sits right in front of you without a shred of remorse,” Conway said.
Jonathan Shapiro, one of Muhammad’s attorneys, pleaded for his client’s life with a short, somber statement to jurors. Shapiro said that nothing the attorneys say can excuse the crimes, that the defense will explain how Muhammad’s life experiences affected him.
Shapiro said evidence will show that Muhammad took the loss of his children “extremely hard” and that he used to live a productive life as a “solid, hard-working guy” who was very attentive to his children. He asked jurors to find something in Muhammad worth saving.
“You will put him in a box of one sort or the other,” Shapiro said. “One is made of concrete, and one is made of pine.”
Prosecutors had planned to present a series of unadjudicated crimes, or “bad acts,” in their sentencing case, hoping to show jurors that Muhammad was responsible for at least three additional slayings and a few similar shootings. They decided, however, not to present the slayings of James D. Martin, 55, who was fatally shot in a grocery store parking lot in Montgomery County on Oct. 2, 2002, and James L “Sonny” Buchanan, 39, who was killed while mowing grass in Montgomery County on Oct. 3 — the first two sniper slayings. Experts could not conclusively link the bullets in those slayings to the Bushmaster. They also decided not to put forward a Baton Rouge, La., shooting in September 2002 that matched the sniper’s profile.
Conway promised to show jurors evidence in the Feb. 16, 2002, slaying of Keenya Cook in Tacoma, Wash., and said he would detail a shooting at a Tacoma synagogue along with anti-Semitic statements Muhammad allegedly made. He also told jurors there would be evidence that Muhammad planned to try to escape from the Prince William County jail.
At a bench conference Monday, the attorneys could be heard discussing an event at the jail in March in which Muhammad allegedly was found in a day room wearing nothing but a sheet. Authorities say Muhammad had talked to other inmates about making an escape attempt by attacking a guard and taking his clothing. He was later moved to solitary confinement.
Isa Nichols, Cook’s aunt, testified that Cook was shot in the face as she answered the door to Nichols’s house. Nichols had joined Mildred Muhammad at the custody hearing, and authorities believe Nichols was the intended target.
Nichols testified that the custody hearing angered Muhammad and frightened Mildred Muhammad. Nichols said John Muhammad threatened Mildred in 2001 when he took the children secretly to Antigua for about 18 months.
“Mildred felt he was going to destroy her,” Nichols said. The children were returned to Mildred Muhammad, who then took them to Prince George’s County.
On cross-examination, Nichols said she had always believed that Muhammad was a good father and a courteous man. Nichols, who had been an accountant for Muhammad’s auto mechanic business, said he ran a great company. She said, however, that he was crafty.
“In my opinion, John was like a chameleon,” Nichols said. “Depending on the environment or the circumstance, John could adapt.”
Millette ruled Monday that prosecutors could present victim impact testimony only from those related to Meyers.
Prosecutors had planned to bring in a parade of witnesses to talk about each of the victims and the impact of their deaths, but Millette ruled for the defense, saying the emotional and wrenching testimony would be improper because other victims were not named in the indictments against Muhammad. The ruling probably will limit the sentencing phase to a few days, and jurors are expected to get the case late this week.