ROCKVILLE—John Allen Muhammad was convicted yesterday of murder in the 2002 sniper rampage that killed six people in Montgomery County, ending a trial in which his claim of being framed was eclipsed by his protege's riveting portrayal of Muhammad as the creator of a scheme to terrorize the nation.
The verdict gave victims' families a sense of justice they have sought since Muhammad, 45, and his admitted acolyte Lee Boyd Malvo, 21, were arrested 3 1/2 years ago - even though the decision to try a man already on Virginia's death row remained controversial. The multiple life sentences prosecutors say they will request tomorrow would all but ensure that Muhammad would spend the rest of his life in prison in the event the Virginia conviction is overturned on appeal.
Vickie Snider, whose brother James "Sonny" Buchanan Jr. was killed as he cut the grass at an auto dealership, sucked in her lower lip as the jury foreperson replied "guilty" six times.
Vijay Walekar, whose brother, Premkumar Walekar, was killed as he pumped gas into his cab, said "I only wish he got another death penalty."
But Maryland prosecutors had decided against seeking a death sentence because they were not confident the crimes would meet the language of the state's capital punishment statute, and the appeals would be costly and time-consuming. Instead, they said they would request Judge James L. Ryan to order six consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors had said the appearance of Malvo on the stand was not essential to their case. One juror agreed but said the testimony of Malvo played a key role in the swift verdict by permitting jurors to pull together elements of the case against Muhammad. "Are you kidding?" said juror Scott Stearns. "Muhammad closed all of his examinations of witnesses by asking, 'Do you have personal knowledge, by that I mean seeing me, of these crimes?' There was one person who did have personal knowledge of what went on in the trunk of that car: Malvo. He didn't ask him. When Malvo finally got around to testifying, that was blown out of the water."
Also, Stearns said, Muhammad's decision to represent himself worked against him in at least one respect. The voice recorder police said they removed from Muhammad's car when he was arrested and which had a recording of Muhammad and Malvo's threatening message to police, did Muhammad in.
"Muhammad's voice - we'd been listening to it for four weeks. If Muhammad had sat silently and not represented himself, we never would have known what John Allen Muhammad's voice sounded like. But we did," Stearns said.
Malvo's disclosures proved particularly damning, as he testified that the sniper shootings were to be a warm-up to a scheme in Baltimore to bomb buses full of elementary schoolchildren and set off explosives at the funeral of a police officer Muhammad planned to kill.
Malvo told a riveted jury that the duo were to have killed someone at random outside a Frederick restaurant on Oct. 24, 2002, before heading to Baltimore, but Malvo fell asleep as they were parked at an I-70 rest stop outside Frederick and they were arrested before dawn that day.
Yesterday's verdict ends a bizarre, nearly four-week trial in which a condemned man seemed to enjoy standing at the defense table in his standby lawyers' suits, flanked by his legal team for advice and by a tactical team for security.
"I think it was a performance," State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, a candidate for Maryland attorney general, said. "He had no defense."
But the three lawyers who volunteered to act as standby counsel said that jurors heard a lopsided case because Muhammad was stymied by the judge and prosecutors at every turn. Ryan prevented Muhammad from calling more than 500 witnesses, including police and out-of-state witnesses, and barred many lines of questioning. Ryan rejected many of Muhammad's witness requests because he did not follow procedural rules, failing, for example, to provide adequate information for court officials to locate many witnesses.
In the end, Muhammad had nine witnesses and no expert testimony, leaving his case dwarfed by prosecutors' overwhelming DNA, fingerprint and other forensic evidence presented by federal experts and more than 100 witnesses.
Muhammad said he came to Maryland from Washington state to find the three children he lost to his ex-wife in a nasty custody fight.
"Unfortunately, there was so much information the jury did not have access to," said one of the standby lawyers, A. Jai Bonner.
She said a "shoot first and ask questions later sentiment of the public echoed in the courtroom."
Muhammad fired his public defenders a month before trial amid disagreements over strategy and as they suggested that he was mentally ill.