Washington sniper avoids execution

The Daily Telegraph/December 24, 2003

Chesapeake, Virginia -- The jury in the Washington sniper case has spared Lee Boyd Malvo from the death penalty, sentencing him instead to life in prison after his lawyers portrayed him as an impressionable boy who had fallen under the murderous spell of his mentor, John Allen Muhammad.

Wearing a blue sweater that made him look like a schoolboy, Malvo, 18, sat expressionless, with his elbows on the defence table.

The jury took 8 hours over two days to decide his fate.

Last month, Muhammad, 42, was convicted of murder in nearby Virginia Beach, and the jury recommended he get the death penalty. The judge has yet to impose sentence.

Prosecutors had argued that death was the only appropriate sentence for Malvo, who was convicted of murder last week in the shooting of FBI analyst Linda Franklin. She was one of 10 people killed during a three-week sniper spree that gripped the Washington area with fear in October 2002. Malvo was 17 at the time.

Prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr. argued that the killings were part of a scheme to extort $10 million from the government and that Malvo was the triggerman in most if not all of the slayings. Mr Horan rejected the notion that Malvo was less responsible for his crimes because he had come under the influence of Muhammad.

"They were an unholy team, as vicious as brutal and as uncaring as you can be," Mr Horan said. "You can talk about John Muhammad all you want. Maybe it was his plan. Maybe it was his idea. But the evidence stamps this defendant as the shooter. ... He did it. Not John Muhammad."

Mr Horan argued Malvo had shown no remorse. Malvo occasionally wept when confronted with the consequences of his crimes, but he was crying for himself, not his victims, the prosecutor said.

Defense lawyer Craig Cooley argued that the Jamaican-born Malvo had been molded into a killer by the charismatic Muhammad. Mr Cooley said Malvo came to regard the Muhammad as a father figure and was susceptible to older man's influence because of his own father's absences and because his mother beat him and moved him constantly.

"Children are not born evil. When they commit evil acts, you can almost always trace the acts to the evil that has been performed against them," Mr Cooley said.

In seeking to save Malvo's life, Mr Cooley reminded the jurors of the consequences of their decision. Mr Cooley held a large stone as a prop, telling the jury that in ancient times the jury itself would hurl the stones at the defendant.

"The stone has no compassion. Once it has been cast, it has no ability to temper its impact. The commonwealth urges you to vote to kill, to stain your stone with the blood of this child," Mr Cooley said.

The jury consisted of eight women and four men, eight whites and four blacks. The foreman was a 41-year-old minister, and four others had occupations connected to education. Two were homemakers.

At the trial, the defence had built their case on an insanity plea, claiming Muhammad had so brainwashed Malvo with his notions of black nationalism, racism and revolutionary violence that the teenager was unable to tell right from wrong. Malvo and Muhammad are black.

Though the argument failed in the guilt-or-innocence part of the trial, it was central to the penalty phase.

Jurors wept when they heard testimony from Franklin's 24-year-old daughter Katrina Hannum, who said she has nightmares every night in which she sees Malvo shoot her mother in the head.

Malvo was convicted of two counts of capital murder: one alleging Franklin's slaying was part of a series of murders, the other alleging the killing was intended to terrorize the population. The second law was passed after the Sept. 11 attacks. Both counts could have brought the death penalty.

Virginia law requires a jury to find at least one "aggravating factor" to impose a death sentence. Prosecutors argued there were two: that Malvo poses a future danger and that his crimes were "outrageously or wantonly vile."

Prosecutors pointed to an escape attempt Malvo made the day of his arrest and letters Malvo wrote in jail as evidence of his dangerousness. One has a drawing of a police officer in crosshairs with the notation: "Make no mistake. I would take you out at your dinner table." Another note said: "Sept. 11 we will ensure will look like a picnic to you."

During the trial, the jury heard recordings of Malvo bragging to police about killing 10 people at random, boasting that most of the victims had been brought down by a single shot, and chuckling as he recalled how a lawnmower kept rumbling along after the man pushing it was shot.

The random killings, Horan said, epitomized vileness: "If that's not vile, there is no vile."

Malvo and Muhammad could stand trial again. Prosecutors in Maryland and Louisiana have said they want a crack at Muhammad, and Malvo could face a similar fate for shootings there.

Attorney General John Ashcroft had cited Virginia's ability to impose "the ultimate sanction" in sending Malvo and Muhammad to Virginia for prosecution.

Virginia is one of only 21 states that allow the execution of those who were 16 or 17 when they killed. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Virginia is one of only six states that have actually executed someone whose crime was committed as a juvenile.

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