The Virginia laws

Muhammad's conviction marks the first time that someone has been convicted under Virginia's anti-terrorism law, which was passed after the Sept. 11 attacks and provides for the death penalty for a criminal mastermind who gives the "direction or order" for a killing.

Prince William County Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr., who presided over the Muhammad trial, has ruled that the new law is constitutional, but the statute is expected to face close scrutiny on appeal. Defense attorneys also could raise on appeal the multiple killings law, which requires that a defendant be found to be an "immediate perpetrator" of the crime.

The defense team pointed out repeatedly that no evidence put the rifle that killed most of the sniper victims into Muhammad's hands. In his closing argument, defense attorney Peter D. Greenspun said the prosecution's case amounted to nothing more than "suspicion, speculation and innuendo."

But the prosecution's circumstantial evidence was enough for jurors. When Muhammad and Malvo were arrested at a rest stop in Frederick County, Md., on Oct. 24 last year, authorities found a .223-caliber Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle in their car. The weapon was hidden behind the back seat, which was hinged for easy access to the trunk.

Prosecutors contend that the rifle was fired from the trunk in many of the sniper shootings, with its muzzle sticking out of a hole cut above the license plate and the trunk lifted slightly to provide room for the scope. Forensic experts testified that they found gunshot residue in the trunk of the 1990 Chevrolet Caprice, a former police car.

Also found in the car was a laptop computer containing what prosecutors called "a virtual diary" of murder - electronic maps of the shooting scenes, some marked with a skull and crossbones, and the draft of a letter demanding money for an end to the killings. A note left near the scene of a shooting in Ashland, Va., demanded $10 million. Malvo's fingerprints were on the note.

Defense attorneys faced an uphill battle from the start. On the first day of testimony, Muhammad fired his court-appointed lawyers and presented his own opening statement, at one point telling jurors, "They wasn't there. I was. I know what happened." Muhammad brought the lawyers back on board two days later.

During the trial, prosecutors presented evidence from 16 shootings - 10 of them fatal - in Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Alabama and Louisiana. However, the principal charge related to the Meyers killing. A veteran who was wounded in Vietnam, Dean H. Meyers was pumping gas into his car that evening before his drive home to Gaithersburg.

Outside the courthouse, Bob Meyers said a crime as "heinous" as his brother's murder warrants the death penalty. Other victims' relatives also called for the death penalty.

Isa Nichols' story

The prosecution began its argument for the death penalty yesterday by putting on the witness stand Isa Nichols, who was John and Mildred Muhammad's accountant for three years in Tacoma, Wash. The couple, who had three young children, ran a car repair business and became close with Nichols.

Nichols said Muhammad was a "good father" but also a chameleon with many moods. After Muhammad abducted the children and took them to Antigua, Nichols helped Mildred Muhammad find a women's shelter. When John Muhammad took the children back to Washington state, they were picked up by authorities and turned over to their mother at a custody hearing in September 2001.

Nichols accompanied Mildred Muhammad to the hearing and helped her escape through a rear exit when it appeared that John Muhammad was chasing them. Mildred Muhammad took the children to Clinton, Md., not telling her ex-husband where she was going. When Muhammad asked where they were, Nichols refused to tell him.

Yesterday, a prosecutor asked Nichols why she withheld that information.

"Because she was afraid," Nichols said. "Mildred felt that John was going to destroy her."

Six months after Mildred Muhammad won custody of the children, Nichols' 21-year-old niece, Keenya Cook, answered the door at Nichols' home and was shot in the face. Cook, who was staying briefly with her aunt, had a 6-month-old daughter. Prosecutors have connected the killing to Muhammad, who was in Tacoma at the time.

Nichols returned home to find Cook's body splayed in the foyer. "I kneeled over her and kept calling her name," Nichols said. "And I grabbed her hand and her hand was cold. Her eyes were open, but they were fixed. I looked closer and saw a bullet casing by her head."

Sun staff writers Stephanie Desmon, Gail Gibson and Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.