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Muhammad found guilty

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - As a dozen relatives of his victims held hands and wept behind him, John Allen Muhammad was found guilty of capital murder yesterday for using a teen-age boy and a beat-up Chevrolet to spread terror and take 10 lives in the Washington-area sniper rampage last fall.

The jurors who convicted the 42-year-old Army veteran after 6 1/2 hours of deliberations moved almost immediately into the sentencing phase of the case, in which they will decide whether Muhammad will spend the rest of his life in prison or die by lethal injection.

Muhammad stood expressionless at the defense table, clasping his hands in front of him and staring straight ahead, as the clerk of the court read the guilty verdicts shortly before noon. Two jurors held hands and two cried. All of the jurors looked at the clerk - not Muhammad - as the verdict was read.

Family members of the victims wrapped their arms around one another as they heard the pronouncement of guilt, and several later hugged the lead prosecutor, Paul B. Ebert.

The jury of seven women and five men found Muhammad guilty on all four counts against him - two of capital murder, one of conspiracy to commit murder and one of use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

"Justice was done," said Bob Meyers, a brother of civil engineer Dean H. Meyers, 53, who was killed Oct. 9, 2002, at a gas station near Manassas, Va. "Certainly, this is a huge step in the pursuit of closure, but I would really doubt that full closure ever comes because there's always an open wound that remains."

One of the capital murder convictions, under Virginia's multiple killings law, is for killing more than one person in a three-year period. The other, under the state's new anti-terrorism law, is for killing someone while committing an act of terror designed to intimidate the public and influence the government.

'A life to be weighed'

As the sentencing phase got under way, defense attorneys quickly changed their strategy from trying to show that Muhammad was not guilty of the charges to trying to show that his life has value and is worth preserving.

In his opening statement for sentencing yesterday, lawyer Jonathan Shapiro said he accepted the verdict even as he urged compassion.

"There's a life to be weighed, there's a life on the line," Shapiro told jurors. "You will make your own decision - to kill him or to spare him - and I know this is a very, very painful place to be right now. Your decision will put Mr. Muhammad in a box of one sort or another; one is made of concrete and one is made of pinewood."

He added, "It is not necessary to extinguish one more life."

Prosecutor Richard A. Conway said that over the next few days, witnesses will testify to other violence connected to Muhammad, to anti-Semitic statements he made, and to his troubled relationship with his former wife, Mildred Muhammad. Conway asked jurors to return a sentence of death.

"We reserve the ultimate punishment - the death penalty - for the worst of the worst. And, folks, he still sits right in front of you without a shred of remorse," Conway said. "The evidence is going to show you [such] a callous disregard for human life that rehabilitation doesn't even enter the picture. Punishment does."

Prosecutors also pointed to Muhammad's attempt to escape from the Prince William County Detention Center in March - a move that landed him in solitary confinement. That, along with other behavioral problems, shows that Muhammad is a threat to other inmates and prison guards, prosecutors said.

Muhammad's alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, also faces the death penalty if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyers are expected to present an insanity defense that argues that Muhammad's control over him was so profound that Malvo cannot be held responsible.

Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys in the Malvo case said they were surprised by the Muhammad verdict. Craig S. Cooley, one of Malvo's lead attorneys, said the verdict reflected the jury's belief that "Muhammad was the principal actor" in the shootings.

In Muhammad's trial, which has stretched over five weeks, prosecutors portrayed the elder man as the captain of a ruthless killing team that terrorized the Washington area and parts of Central Virginia for three weeks in October 2002. Ten people were killed and three wounded. All of the survivors, including a 13-year-old boy shot outside his Bowie middle school, testified during the trial.

"This case called out for the death penalty, perhaps more than any I've ever seen," said Douglas M. Duncan, the county executive in Montgomery, the Maryland jurisdiction where six of the 10 killings occurred. "Millions of people thought, 'The next time I put gas in my car, the next time I got to the grocery store, I could die.' That's a horrible thing to inflict upon a community, and it deserves the most severe punishment."

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.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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