By Andrea F. Siegel
May 31, 2006
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.
Jurors deliberated for 4 1/2 hours yesterday before facing Muhammad, who gazed stone-faced at them, arms folded over his chest, as the verdicts were read shortly after 2 p.m.
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.
The lawyers said Muhammad intends to appeal the verdict and has decided to permit them to take control of the sentencing proceedings, though he, who spoke for 3 1/2 hours in his closing argument on Friday, will have an opportunity to speak.
Yesterday, however, Ryan refused to allow Muhammad to get another word in.
"May I speak?" Muhammad asked, after the verdict was read.
"No, sir," the judge replied, and sheriff's deputies whisked Muhammad out of the courtroom.
Abraham Dash, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who was not involved in the case, said that Muhammad's decision to represent himself turned the defense into something of a "farce" but it probably didn't affect the outcome of the trial.
"I honestly don't think it made that much of a difference," Dash said. "I don't think it would have made a difference if Clarence Darrow had handled things."
The convictions were for these killings: James D. Martin, 55, on Oct. 2; James L. "Sonny" Buchanan Jr., 39, Walekar, 54, Sarah Ramos, 34, and Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, the next day; and Conrad E. Johnson, 35, on Oct. 22.
The shootings - which Malvo testified were random - were part of a rampage in which 13 people were shot, 10 fatally, in Maryland, Washington and Virginia.
Muhammad claimed he was framed by police and said Malvo had been brainwashed by police into confession.
Malvo, however, said that in Montgomery County, he shot only the final victim and Muhammad shot the others. Malvo testified that Muhammad sought to extort $10 million from the government and use it to create a community in Canada to train 140 children to replicate his violent scheme across the United States in a bid to destroy the economy and foment revolution.
Malvo, a native of Jamaica, agreed to plead guilty to the same charges for which Muhammad was being tried. Gansler said Malvo approached prosecutors about testifying and did not seek a promise of leniency when he is sentenced later this year.
Malvo was tried and convicted of one sniper killing and pleaded guilty to others in Virginia. He is serving multiple life sentences there without the possibility of parole. Because he was a minor when the shootings took place, he was ineligible for the death penalty in Maryland. Prosecutors in Virginia unsuccessfully sought the death penalty for Malvo, and the Supreme Court has since struck it down for youthful offenders.
Muhammad's trial followed the pattern of his Virginia trial, as prosecutors went through 14 shootings - 13 in the Washington area and one in Alabama - and 17 sightings of Muhammad or Malvo or Muhammad's 1990 Chevrolet Caprice. Prosecutors told jurors that the duo cruised the region in this mobile sniper's lair, its windows tinted dark, a gunport cut into the trunk so the .223 rifle could be fired from within. Then, prosecutors brought in the "call me God" message to police and the forensics to tie Muhammad and Malvo to the car and gun.
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