MANASSAS, Va. - John Allen Muhammad, the ex-soldier turned suburban sniper whose attacks took 10 lives in and around the nation's capital, was sentenced to death yesterday in a courtroom packed with the tearful relatives of those he killed.
Prince William County Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. upheld a jury's recommended sentence of death and set an execution date of Oct. 14 - a date certain to be delayed as the appeals process begins. Millette said he found "overwhelming evidence" that Muhammad was behind the sniper rampage.
"These offenses were so vile they were almost beyond comprehension to the community," Millette said in court, adding that the jury made the right call in finding for death. "I believe in capital cases, more than anything else we do in the justice system, the jury reflects the conscience of the community."
He then looked to Muhammad, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and looking unkempt with a thatchy beard, and said, "I'm going to confirm the jury's verdict and sentence you to death."
More than 50 relatives of the sniper victims, in the courtroom for the sentencing, exhaled as the judge announced his decision. One woman pumped her fist. Others cried and hugged. Muhammad, standing at the defense table, showed no emotion. Given a chance to make a statement moments earlier, he had again asserted his innocence.
"I stand before you today, just like I said at the beginning of the trial, I had nothing to do with this case," he told the judge, his voice in a whisper. "I understand what my lawyers are trying to do. You do what you have to do and let me do what I have to do to defend myself."
The sentencing ends the last chapter of Muhammad's first trial and provides some finality for the victims' families, many of whom attended the trial in Virginia Beach last fall and who wanted to be in the courtroom yesterday to represent those they had lost.
"Justice is always limited, but it is done to the extent it can be," said Bob Meyers, whose brother Dean H. Meyers, 53, was killed at a Sunoco station north of Manassas on Oct. 9, 2002. "There are no winners today. This is not a victory, but yet it was something that had to be done, and it was done right."
The sentence is automatically appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court. The typical length of time between sentencing and execution in Virginia is five years.
Muhammad's teen-age accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, will be sentenced today in Chesapeake, Va., to life in prison without parole. Because Malvo's jury rejected a death sentence, the judge, under state law, must impose the jury's sentence of life imprisonment.
It has not been decided what will happen next to the two men, although they are likely to remain in Virginia for more trials. Prosecutors said they would be meeting with victims' families yesterday and will take their wishes into account.
Muhammad, 43, and Malvo, 19, were both convicted of two counts of capital murder last year in the deaths of Meyers and FBI analyst Linda Franklin, respectively, during a sniper rampage in October 2002 that left 10 people dead, three wounded and millions living in fear. Many of the shootings were carried out from the trunk of a car, which was modified so a gun barrel could point through the back of the vehicle.
In yesterday's two-hour sentencing hearing, lead prosecutor Paul B. Ebert pointed to the randomness of the shootings and noted that a 13-year-old Bowie boy had been among the wounded.
"The type of person he is, is that of a coward - hiding in a car at a distance," Ebert said.
'Deserve some closure'
Later, sweeping his hand across the rows of families gathered, Ebert said: "These folks in this courtroom, and many others, deserve some closure, deserve some solace, something in their soul, so they know that at least this person had the same fate their loved ones had."
Lawyers plea for his life
Both of Muhammad's defense lawyers made pleas for his life, arguing that there is still value and worth to his existence and noting that equity demands Muhammad receive the same sentence as Malvo - life in prison. They said that Muhammad, given time, could become a better person.
"I've represented a lot of bad guys - guys who when you look them in the eye, you see evil," said defense attorney Peter D. Greenspun. "I've spent dozens, hundreds of hours with Mr. Muhammad and, speaking personally, that's not what I see."
Later, in comments to reporters outside the courthouse, Ebert disagreed. The prosecutor said, "Counsel for the defense says he sees no evil in his client. I can't agree with that. I see nothing but evil."
Defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro asked the judge to consider the good in Muhammad's life before the shootings began: He grew up poor in Louisiana, graduated from high school and spent 10 years in the Army, serving in the Persian Gulf war and obtaining an honorable discharge. He later started a family and began a car-repair business in Tacoma, Wash.
But Muhammad's life came unhinged when his wife left him and later moved to Maryland with their three children. While initially sharing custody, Muhammad had illegally taken the children to Antigua for almost a year. His wife gained full custody and secretly took the children to live with relatives in Clinton.
"He was not born evil, he is not a virus, he is not the devil," Shapiro said. "He was born a child who became a man, and many things had an impact on him. The point is simply that if he is, as the jury has found, a killer, he was for 40 years someone completely different. If someone can change all that and become a killer, then time can change all that back again."
Shapiro added: "We can, judge, I think as a society fully accept the horror of these murders and yet take a stand that further killing is not right. Killing John Muhammad only serves to make more children fatherless. To kill John Muhammad is just adding others to the ranks of those in pain."
'I miss my mom'
But many of those already in pain urged for his execution in letters sent to the court before sentencing. Two relatives of the victims also testified in court yesterday. Franklin's daughter, Katrina Hannum, said the loss of her mother was impossible to describe. Hannum was pregnant with her first child when Franklin was killed.
"I miss my mom," she said through tears. "She was a beautiful, amazing woman who had nothing but love, and I miss her every day. The one piece of light in my life is my little boy, and she misses all of that. That is so wrong. That is so unfair."
The other relative to testify was Larry Meyers, the oldest brother of Dean Meyers, a Gaithersburg engineer who was shot as he stopped on his way home from work in Manassas. Larry Meyers recalled how his brother had survived a sniper shooting in Vietnam and received the Purple Heart.
"I can hear his voice now more than ever," he said. "He had this great laugh. He was one of the most humorous, generous, kind, loving people you can ever meet. ... We had so many great moments. My only regret is we'll be deprived of so many more I had looked forward to - they're just not there."
Muhammad first met Malvo in Antigua in 2001 when he had taken his children there. Malvo, who was born in Jamaica, had moved to Antigua with his mother. He quickly took to Muhammad, who became the father Malvo never had, and moved in with him when his mother left for Florida.
Later, Muhammad and Malvo would reunite in Washington state, where the older man taught the boy to shoot, put him on a strict diet and exercise regimen, and showed him violent movies including The Matrix. The first killing linked to them occurred Feb. 16, 2002, when Malvo shot a woman in the face in Tacoma.
They would eventually be linked to 13 more killings and six shootings across the country, culminating with the sniper rampage in the Washington area. The two were caught asleep in their blue Chevrolet Caprice at an Interstate 70 rest stop in Frederick County about 3 a.m. Oct. 24, 2002.
Inside the car was a .223-caliber Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle - the weapon later determined to have fired the bullets that killed 11 people - found in the fire mode, with its safety off and a live round of ammunition in the chamber.