Sniper victims' relatives

Sonia Wills (left), mother of sniper victim Conrad Johnson, hugs Johnson's wife, Denise Johnson. Behind them are Wills' husband, Tyrone Wills, and Ola Martin-Border, sister of victim James Martin. (Sun photo by Kim Hairston / June 1, 2006)

More than three years after a sniper's bullet felled Conrad Johnson as he stood in the doorway of a Montgomery County bus, Sonia Wills had the opportunity yesterday to confront her son's convicted killer.

Calling John Allen Muhammad the "devil's advocate," Wills bore into the 45-year-old Gulf War veteran as he looked downward, toward papers at the defense table.

"It is a shame you will not look at us to see the lives you have devastated, the lives that you have ruined," Wills told Muhammad.

Wills was one of four relatives of Muhammad's victims who spoke at a hearing at which he was sentenced to six consecutive life terms with no possibility of parole for sniper shootings in Montgomery County in the fall of 2002.

Though the relatives of victims expected no apology from Muhammad, several expressed revulsion at his refusal to acknowledge the grieving speakers.

Circuit Judge James L. Ryan pointedly noted that Muhammad would live out his days "locked in a cage" while grieving families and a terrorized community would forge ahead with their lives.

"You chose the wrong community, sir, to stain with your acts of violence," Ryan told a grimacing Muhammad, who stood with his arms folded across his chest as he awaited sentencing.

"You, Mr. Muhammad, have no hope. You have no future," Ryan said before imposing the maximum sentence.

Shortly afterward, deputy sheriffs returned Muhammad to a prison in Waverly, Va., where he is on death row for a seventh sniper slaying, said Montgomery County Sheriff's Department Deputy Chief Darren Popkin.

Outside the courtroom, Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, a candidate for Maryland attorney general, said that anyone who questioned whether the county that suffered the most should try this case "should be ashamed of themselves."

Some had criticized the expense of the trial, with the cost of housing and providing security for Muhammad and Malvo exceeding $600,000. Gansler and others argued that the trial was needed as "insurance" in case Muhammad's sniper conviction and death sentence in Virginia were overturned on appeal, and to help the victims' families and the community put the case behind them.

Yesterday, the hostility in the full courtroom toward the man believed to have masterminded a violent cross-country rampage with a teenager as his puppet, was palpable. Observers applauded Ryan's sentence as the tearful relatives of victims hugged.

Wills told Muhammad that he would never see his children again - a reminder of Muhammad's opening remarks from the trial's start nearly a month ago. Maintaining innocence, he had told jurors that losing his children in a custody war was "my 9/11" and that he came east to reclaim them.

The words of Nelson Rivera, whose wife Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera was gunned down as she vacuumed her van, moved people in the courtroom to tears. The couple's 7-year-old daughter, Jocelin, talks of dying so she can join her mother.

"She knows her mom is dead, but she is just hoping when she is going to die. That is what I am living now because of Mr. Muhammad," Rivera said.

"That worries me," he said outside the courtroom.

Every year, with Mother's Day and her mother's birthday near each other, Jocelin selects a plant in memory of her. Last month, Jocelin chose morning glories for the front of their home outside Sacramento, Calif., Rivera said.

Now, after three trials - two for Muhammad and one for admitted accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo - Rivera said he has no answer when she asks why her mother was killed.

"She wants these bad guys to say 'sorry' to her for her mom," Rivera said. "He's cold. No feeling at all."