Victims' families find closure in sentence

MANASSAS, Va. - The families of the sniper victims spent so many days in court together during the six-week trial of John Allen Muhammad last fall that they greeted each other like old friends at the courthouse yesterday, their bonds forged by the losses they shared.

They filled six rows in Courtroom 4 here, alternately hugging, crying and smiling.

They asked sheriff's deputies for a box of tissues in the moments before the sentencing hearing began, and they held one another's arms as they walked out of the courtroom two hours later, their wish for justice fulfilled. Muhammad had been sentenced to death.

"It was a tough decision, but a decision that had to be made," said Denise Johnson, the wife of bus driver Conrad Johnson. Her husband became the sniper's final victim, killed just before he was to have driven his route on Oct. 22, 2002.

"The punishment fit the crime," Johnson said of yesterday's sentence.

In victim impact letters, many of the families asked a judge to confirm the jury's recommended sentence of death.

Those letters were sealed, but the families made their intentions clear in interviews outside the courthouse yesterday.

"What Muhammad did was inhuman. He deserves to die. He killed so many innocent people," said Kwang Im Szuszka, whose sister Hong Im Ballenger was killed as she locked up her beauty store in Baton Rouge, La., on Sept. 23, 2002.

It was one of several murder-robberies committed to finance the sniper rampage, authorities say.

"I miss her so much," Szuszka said of her sister, who was 45. "I wish I had one more day to spend time with her so I can tell her how much I love her, and how proud I am of her."

Many of the families planned to attend the sentencing today of Lee Boyd Malvo, 19, Muhammad's accomplice in the sniper shootings that left 10 dead and three wounded in the Washington region in October 2002.

Malvo's jury sentenced him to life in prison without parole - a sentence the judge cannot change during today's hearing.

Even so, the relatives said that with the sentencings this week they feel a kind of finality to the horrific events set in motion a year and a half ago.

They now are assured that the men who killed their loved ones will never again see freedom, and they hope to piece their lives back together as best they can.

"Justice is served," said Howard Henry, a cousin of Conrad Johnson. "The victims can now try their best to move on and capture some of the joy that was lost in our lives. Today is the close of one chapter, but we have to begin another."

Not all relatives wanted death for Muhammad, an issue that split members of several families.

While Hong Im Ballenger's sister favored death, Ballenger's husband said he had forgiven the snipers and was not out for vengeance - a message he wanted to deliver as a humanistic example for his young sons.

"If I request the death penalty for him, then I have not forgiven him in my heart. The Bible says you have to forgive in order to be forgiven," James Ballenger said in a phone interview from Baton Rouge.

"I just thank God for the time I had with her. And as for the people who killed her, as long as they're punished, I'm satisfied with that."

Bob Meyers, whose brother Dean Meyers, a civil engineer, was killed while pumping gas near Manassas, Va., said he was pleased with the sentence for Muhammad. Meyers said he hopes Malvo faces future trials, so he, too, can be put to death.

But Bob's older brother, Larry Meyers, has said he favors life sentences for the snipers.

"I'm not out for revenge. I don't think that accomplishes anything," Meyers said. But he added yesterday, "For the current time, a big weight has been lifted off my shoulders and the shoulders of my family as we look forward to moving forward."

In his victim impact testimony yesterday, Larry Meyers did not ask for a particular sentence for Muhammad.

Instead, he spoke of the good his brother had done in his 53 years of life. Dean Meyers had sponsored five children in Africa through a Christian anti-poverty mission and given generously to charity.

"Dean was the kind of guy who would go where you went, do what you did and talk about what you wanted to talk about," Larry Meyers said.

He added that his brother always brought the fireworks to the family's big July 4th picnics in Pennsylvania, and he said that last year a 5-year-old niece of his said before the holiday, "I guess there won't be any fireworks this year."