Virginia Jury Recommends Death Sentence for Convicted Sniper Mastermind John Allen Muhammad
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. Nov. 24 — Jurors decided Monday that John Allen Muhammad should be executed for masterminding the deadly sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington area for three weeks last fall.
As the verdict was read, Muhammad maintained the same unflinching demeanor he had shown through most of his trial. The jury deliberated five hours over two days before reaching the verdict against Muhammad, a 42-year-old Army veteran who had asked police to “Call me God” during the October 2002 spree.
Jurors had convicted him of murder a week ago and then heard testimony in the sentencing phase.
The jury’s sentencing recommendation is not final. Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. can reduce the punishment to life in prison without parole when Muhammad is formally sentenced, but Virginia judges rarely do that. Sentencing was set for Feb. 12.
The jury concluded that prosecutors proved both aggravating factors allowing the death penalty: that Muhammad would pose a danger in the future or that his crimes were wantonly vile. He was sentenced to death on both counts he was convicted of last Monday: multiple murders within three years and murder as part of a terrorist plot.
“As we said from the get-go, the death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worse,” prosecutor Paul Ebert said. “We think Mr. Muhammad fell into that category and we think the jury agreed.”
The jury also recommended the maximum sentences of 10 years in prison for conspiracy to murder and three years for using a firearm in a felony.
When Muhammad and his teenage co-defendant, Lee Boyd Malvo, were arrested on Oct. 24, 2002, several jurisdictions scrambled to prosecute them. Attorney General John Ashcroft decided to send them to Virginia to stand trial, citing the state’s ability to impose “the ultimate sanction.”
Only Texas has executed more people than Virginia since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 310 to 89. Virginia is one of 21 states that allow the execution of inmates who committed capital crimes as 16- and 17-year-olds. Malvo was 17 at the time of the shootings.
During the sentencing phase of the trial, defense lawyers sought to portray Muhammad as a caring family man, showing jurors a home movie in which he played with his children and encouraged them to take their first steps. Several witnesses also testified he had a loving relationship with his kids.
But prosecutor James Willett said “that person no longer exists.”
“He doesn’t care about children, human life or anything else God put on this earth except himself,” Willett said Thursday as he urged jurors to give Muhammad a death sentence.
Willett said Muhammad may have been a good father once, but “that person no longer exists. … That person was murdered by this individual just as viciously and just as completely as everybody else.”
The defense was barred from presenting any mental health evidence on Muhammad’s behalf, because Muhammad refused to be interviewed by the prosecutors’ psychiatrist. The defense had previously suggested Muhammad may have suffered from Gulf War syndrome, and his ex-wife said that Muhammad’s behavior was much different after he returned from Operation Desert Storm.
Prosecutors earlier depicted Muhammad as a ruthless murderer who was “captain of a killing team,” and they presented evidence of 16 shootings, including 10 deaths, in Maryland, Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana and the District of Columbia.
Muhammad was found guilty of killing Dean Harold Meyers, a 53-year-old Vietnam veteran who was cut down by a single bullet to the head on Oct. 9, 2002, as he filled his tank at a Manassas-area gas station.
Malvo is on trial in nearby Chesapeake for killing FBI analyst Linda Franklin, 47, outside a Home Depot store in Fairfax County on Oct. 14, 2002.
Prosecutors offered no proof that showed Muhammad was the triggerman, but they presented a mountain of circumstantial evidence linking him to the crimes. His DNA was found on the .223-caliber rifle used in the killings, and prosecutors said a laptop computer found in his car included maps of six shooting scenes, each marked with skull-and-crossbones icons.
Meanwhile, in Chesapeake, a judge ruled Monday that jurors in Malvo’s trial will be allowed to hear the remainder of a recorded interview with police in which the teenager bragged about his marksmanship
Jurors on Friday had heard four audiotapes of the interview, conducted by a Fairfax homicide detective, but defense attorneys objected to a fifth tape of the end of the interview, contending the sound quality was so poor that the transcript was inaccurate.
Circuit Judge Jane Marum Roush said Monday she listened to the tape “many, many times” during the weekend and was satisfied that the transcript is accurate. She said prosecutors could play the tape and let the jury read the transcript.
In the interviews, Malvo admitted pulling the trigger in all the shootings, bragged about his shooting prowess and explained the sniper plan by weaving together the philosophical, logistical and nonsensical.
In the tapes played for Malvo’s jury Friday, he at times sounded childlike and vulnerable, as when he asks police about the whereabouts of his “father,” Muhammad, and if he could have raisins. At other times he sounded maniacal and savvy, as when he imitated a lawnmower noise while describing the deadly shooting of a landscaper, and later chided detectives for asking him a “leading question.”