A glimpse into the thinking of sniper jury

Sniper shootings coverage
As jurors in the murder trial of John Allen Muhammad huddled in the small deliberation room of the Montgomery County courthouse, the case finally in their hands after some three weeks of testimony, they began by discussing the evidence in each of the six shootings one at a time, noting where they found gaps and questions.

"We had an easel in the room, and we wrote down everything we knew about all the evidence presented and what was missing," said juror Scott Stearns.

As they completed their discussion of each sniper killing, they stopped to vote. Each time the result was the same: a unanimous verdict of guilt on the first ballot.

Stearns' account provides a peek into the methodical yet swift deliberations Tuesday that resulted in Muhammad's conviction in the 2002 sniper shootings.

Thirteen people were shot in the Washington area, 10 of them fatally.

The Gulf War veteran, who is on death row in Virginia for a killing in that state, is scheduled today to return to court, where prosecutors say they will ask for six consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.

During their 4 1/2 hours of deliberation, jurors took the six killings in order - James D. Martin, 55, on the evening of Oct. 2; James L. "Sonny" Buchanan Jr., 39, Premkumar Walekar, 54, Sarah Ramos, 34, and Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, the next morning; and Conrad E. Johnson, 35, near dawn on Oct. 22.

They decided to skip Martin and Buchanan, the two in which Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives firearms examiner Walter Dandridge said no ballistics comparison could be made, Stearns said. But the jurors asked for a laptop computer to view Dandrige's courtroom slide presentation in which he tied four of the slayings to the rifle found in Muhammad's car.

"There wasn't a lot of discussion" among the 12 jurors about three of the slayings - Walekar, Ramos and Lewis-Rivera, said Stearns, a Voice of America White House correspondent and the only juror to speak publicly about the case so far.

Judge James L. Ryan sealed the jurors' identities on May 4 when the panel was chosen.

The jurors did consider, for example, that a witness said he saw a white van around the time Walekar was shot across the street, a point raised by Muhammad.

And they considered other points that Muhammad, 45, raised, Stearns said. Among them were the lack of strike marks caused by ejected shell casings inside the trunk of Muhammad's old Chevrolet Caprice, even though Lee Boyd Malvo, 21, testified that Muhammad took five of the fatal shots from inside the trunk with the .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle found in the car when the duo was arrested on Oct. 24, 2002.

They paused at Johnson's shooting to consult Ryan's instructions, as they wondered whether Muhammad could be convicted if he might not have been right at the scene, Stearn said. Malvo, Muhammad's protégé, had told jurors that he shot Johnson from the woods at Muhammad's behest, while Muhammad waited nearby.

Then, they returned to first two slayings. The Martin and Buchanan murder sites were marked with a skull-and-crossbones icon on the mapping program in the laptop found in Muhammad's car. The Martin shooting featured a nearly identical setup to another parking lot slaying, Stearns said.

Malvo's testimony - which offered an inside account of the shootings - was not crucial to their verdicts, he said. But he provided key insights and confirmation, Stearns said.

"That relationship, you could see that teacher-mentor thing," in Muhammad's cross-examination of Malvo, he said. When Malvo didn't know the name of a gun part, Muhammad "would say, 'I taught you, and now you don't know the names?' And Malvo seemed chastened by that."

Malvo, serving multiple life terms for Virginia sniper shootings, has agreed to plead guilty in Maryland to the same six charges Muhammad faced.

Muhammad, who represented himself at his trial, will turn over those responsibilities during the sentencing proceedings to the attorneys who acted as standby counsel. Whether Muhammad will speak today is not known, though he will have the opportunity to address the court.

Muhammad contended he was framed by law enforcement.

Victims' relatives, who also may speak, are unlikely to hear an apology. "You will not see any remorse out of me because I am not guilty," Muhammad told the jury in his 3-hour and 20-minute closing argument last Friday.

J. Wyndal Gordon, one of Muhammad's standby lawyers, said Muhammad was denied a fair trial and was barred by the judge from calling witnesses to plant seeds of reasonable doubt in jurors' minds and support his strategy. Gordon said they had no time to summon witnesses for him.

"He may very well say he is sorry for the losses incurred by the families. He may say he is sorry they were not able to hear the truth about what happened in this case," Gordon said.

"We are going to talk about the John Muhammad we know," Gordon said.

"He is an affable man, he is a humble man. He listens. He takes our advice. He is intelligent. And he was very concerned about his defense of the charges, he was very concerned about his family. ... That is not a popular view of him. I don't see a need to turn my back on him because people don't like him."