Jury chooses death for Muhammad

'Justice has been served,' Dean Meyers' brother says

Times-Dispatch/November 24, 2003
By Kiran Krishnamurthy and Bill Geroux

Virginia Beach -- A jury yesterday recommended that John Allen Muhammad be put to death, showing no mercy to a man who showed none while waging a campaign of sniper murders that left 10 people dead and terrorized millions from Maryland to the Richmond area.

Jurors said afterward that they had searched for some sign of remorse in Muhammad but saw nothing.

Muhammad, 42, stood with his hands clasped before him, wearing the stoic look he has maintained for most of his six-week trial, as a clerk recited two death sentences for the capital murder of Dean H. Meyers at a gas station near Manassas in Prince William County on the night of Oct. 9, 2002.

Jurors, who apparently were at odds while debating between a death sentence and life in prison, deliberated about five hours Friday and yesterday before returning their verdicts shortly before 10:30 a.m.

Several jurors glanced at Muhammad on their way into the courtroom to deliver their decision. Once seated in the jury box, some stared at him. Jackie Marhalik, a real estate agent, closed her eyes for seconds at a time as the verdicts were read. Heather M. Best-Teague, a bartender, nervously rubbed the arms on her chair and appeared to choke back tears.

A couple of minutes after the verdicts were read, Muhammad leaned to the side to shake hands with defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro, who had argued for the jury to spare his life. Then Muhammad buttoned his sportcoat and was escorted from the courtroom by sheriff's deputies.

Meyers' relatives said afterward that they were satisfied with the jury's recommendation. Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. can reduce the sentence to life imprisonment without parole. However, judges seldom alter juries' recommendations in capital cases.

"Justice has been served," Robert Meyers, one of Dean Meyers' three brothers, said outside the courthouse. "I do not revel in the decision. It is a weighty one. It is not to be taken lightly."

Robert Meyers said Muhammad's apparent lack of remorse throughout the proceedings convinced him that a death sentence was "right and proper."

Several jurors among the panel agreed while speaking to reporters.

"I tried to pay attention to his demeanor the whole time. Personally, I looked for something in him that might have shown remorse, or anything along those lines, but I just never saw it the whole time," said Robert L. Elliott, a biomedical technician.

Jurors also recommended a 10-year prison term for Muhammad's conviction on a single count of conspiracy to commit murder, and a mandatory three-year term on a firearms charge.

Muhammad was to be transported back to jail in Manassas to await formal sentencing by Millette, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 12. If the judge upholds the jury's recommendation, Muhammad would then be moved to Virginia's death row at Sussex I State Prison.

Muhammad, who became the first convicted under the state's new anti-terrorism law, may also face murder trials in Maryland in other sniper killings in October 2002, and in Alabama, Louisiana and Washington state in earlier slayings.

Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert, the chief prosecutor in the case, said after the verdict that he took no pleasure in the death sentence but that he believes Muhammad deserved it.

"I think the jury got to see all of the good there was in him, and it wasn't enough," Ebert said.

Defense attorneys Shapiro and Peter D. Greenspun said they had no quarrel with the jurors who reached a decision based on the law. Rather, the attorneys lashed out at capital punishment. Greenspun pointedly criticized U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft for sending the case to Virginia in search of a death penalty.

"What is more unseemly than the attorney general of the United States saying, 'We're going to go to Virginia, where Mr. Muhammad will be killed,'" Greenspun told reporters before abruptly ending a post-trial news conference and going back inside the courthouse.

Prosecutors presented an overwhelming circumstantial case against Muhammad during five weeks of testimony, summoning more than 140 witnesses and presenting over 400 items of evidence.

Several witnesses testified they saw either Muhammad or his blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice near shooting scenes, and jurors were able to view the Caprice in a secure parking area in the same jail where Muhammad was held during the trial.

Some witnesses also said they saw Muhammad, a Gulf War veteran, carrying a rifle, shooting with a silencer and talking with accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo about shooting targets. Prosecutors say Muhammad trained Malvo and referred to the teen as his son, although the two are not biologically related.

Malvo, 18, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in the killings, basing his defense on the assertion that he was brainwashed by Muhammad, 24 years his senior. Muhammad was unable to present mental-health testimony in his defense, because he refused to meet with a mental-health expert hired by prosecutors.

Ebert and his team of prosecutors also presented maps found on a laptop computer in the car, which showed Muhammad and Malvo had staked out other possible shooting locations along the East Coast, including in Hampton Roads, where the trials were moved to help ensure fair jury selection outside Northern Virginia. Several jurors exchanged sideways glances last week when it became apparent their home region had been targeted.

Ebert wasted no opportunity to hold aloft the .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle recovered from the Caprice and linked by ballistics tests to most of the shootings. A DNA expert said Muhammad's genetic profile was consistent with DNA found on a rifle sight detached from the weapon but found in the car.

Investigators also found DNA belonging to Malvo on a bag containing a note in woods at the scene of an Ashland wounding, as well as on a note in woods near the killing of Maryland bus driver Conrad Johnson, the last person to be shot during the suburban siege. Muhammad and Malvo were arrested two days after Johnson's murder, as they slept in the Caprice at a Maryland rest area in the early morning of Oct. 24, 2002.

One of Muhammad's fingerprints was also recovered from a map found across the street from Meyers' killing.

Muhammad's lawyers presented their case for innocence in just three hours, trying to undermine the credibility of some witnesses and reported sightings of the Caprice near murder scenes.

At the trial's outset, Muhammad pushed aside the lawyers and served as his own attorney, delivering a rambling opening statement. The jury foreman said he found Muhammad's decision arrogant.

After the verdict yesterday, the entire jury of seven women and five men stood on the courthouse steps before a horde of reporters, and six of them took turns at the microphone.

Jury foreman Jerry M. Haggerty, a retired Navy aviator, would not say how many members of the panel had originally favored a life sentence or whether the jury had been close to an impasse.

Juror Dennis J. Bowman, a hardware-store clerk, said a video of Muhammad playing with two of his children a decade ago weighed on him and that he had been leaning toward a life sentence. But Bowman said he reconsidered Sunday night, when he realized that Muhammad was a skilled combatant who could kill or maim a fellow inmate or guard if sent to live out his days in a super-maximum prison.

Heather M. Best-Teague, who cried both at ghastly crime-scene photos and the video of Muhammad and his children in happier times, said not everyone on the jury was "good with the decision, but we knew that we had made the right one."

To the surprise of some, Robert Meyers said he does not detest the man who murdered his older brother.

"I hate what he did, but I can't say that I hate him," he said of Muhammad. Citing the biblical Book of Romans, Chapter 12, he said, "I believe that . . . our responsibility is not revenge, and when we allow that kind of emotion, hatred, bitterness . . . the ones we hurt are ourselves."

Haggerty declined to say whether the jury had attributed any specific motive to Muhammad in deciding his guilt and recommending death.

The anti-terrorism law used in the case was enacted by the Virginia General Assembly in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Prosecutors alleged that Muhammad and Malvo sought to intimidate the civilian population and influence the course of government by demanding $10 million to stop the shootings.

One of the two capital-murder charges against Muhammad for Meyers' murder alleged the killings were part of a terrorist act; the other alleged multiple killings.

"I am pleased that the rule of law has prevailed, particularly in the use of our new terrorism statute," Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore said in a statement.

Under law, the Virginia Supreme Court automatically reviews any case resulting in a death sentence. Legal experts also predict the state's terrorism law will be challenged at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Prosecutors also suggested the shootings may have been fueled by a bitter divorce and Muhammad's bid to regain custody of his three children. Prosecutors alleged he had planned to kill Mildred Muhammad, who lived in the Washington suburb of Clinton, Md., with the couple's children, and make her death appear to be the random act of a sniper.

Even now, Robert Meyers said he is unsure what drove Muhammad - greed, power or hatred.

"I would like to know the reason," he said. "But whatever reason it is, it won't be a good one."

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