Families confront sniper

Sonia Wills (left), mother of sniper victim Conrad Johnson, hugs Johnson's wife, Denise Johnson. Behind them are Wills' husband, Tyrone Wills, and Ola Martin-Border, sister of victim James Martin.
Sonia Wills (left), mother of sniper victim Conrad Johnson, hugs Johnson's wife, Denise Johnson. Behind them are Wills' husband, Tyrone Wills, and Ola Martin-Border, sister of victim James Martin. (Sun photo by Kim Hairston)
More than three years after a sniper's bullet felled Conrad Johnson as he stood in the doorway of a Montgomery County bus, Sonia Wills had the opportunity yesterday to confront her son's convicted killer.

Calling John Allen Muhammad the "devil's advocate," Wills bore into the 45-year-old Gulf War veteran as he looked downward, toward papers at the defense table.

"It is a shame you will not look at us to see the lives you have devastated, the lives that you have ruined," Wills told Muhammad.

Wills was one of four relatives of Muhammad's victims who spoke at a hearing at which he was sentenced to six consecutive life terms with no possibility of parole for sniper shootings in Montgomery County in the fall of 2002.

Though the relatives of victims expected no apology from Muhammad, several expressed revulsion at his refusal to acknowledge the grieving speakers.

Circuit Judge James L. Ryan pointedly noted that Muhammad would live out his days "locked in a cage" while grieving families and a terrorized community would forge ahead with their lives.

"You chose the wrong community, sir, to stain with your acts of violence," Ryan told a grimacing Muhammad, who stood with his arms folded across his chest as he awaited sentencing.

"You, Mr. Muhammad, have no hope. You have no future," Ryan said before imposing the maximum sentence.

Shortly afterward, deputy sheriffs returned Muhammad to a prison in Waverly, Va., where he is on death row for a seventh sniper slaying, said Montgomery County Sheriff's Department Deputy Chief Darren Popkin.

Outside the courtroom, Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, a candidate for Maryland attorney general, said that anyone who questioned whether the county that suffered the most should try this case "should be ashamed of themselves."

Some had criticized the expense of the trial, with the cost of housing and providing security for Muhammad and Malvo exceeding $600,000. Gansler and others argued that the trial was needed as "insurance" in case Muhammad's sniper conviction and death sentence in Virginia were overturned on appeal, and to help the victims' families and the community put the case behind them.

Yesterday, the hostility in the full courtroom toward the man believed to have masterminded a violent cross-country rampage with a teenager as his puppet, was palpable. Observers applauded Ryan's sentence as the tearful relatives of victims hugged.

Wills told Muhammad that he would never see his children again - a reminder of Muhammad's opening remarks from the trial's start nearly a month ago. Maintaining innocence, he had told jurors that losing his children in a custody war was "my 9/11" and that he came east to reclaim them.

The words of Nelson Rivera, whose wife Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera was gunned down as she vacuumed her van, moved people in the courtroom to tears. The couple's 7-year-old daughter, Jocelin, talks of dying so she can join her mother.

"She knows her mom is dead, but she is just hoping when she is going to die. That is what I am living now because of Mr. Muhammad," Rivera said.

"That worries me," he said outside the courtroom.

Every year, with Mother's Day and her mother's birthday near each other, Jocelin selects a plant in memory of her. Last month, Jocelin chose morning glories for the front of their home outside Sacramento, Calif., Rivera said.

Now, after three trials - two for Muhammad and one for admitted accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo - Rivera said he has no answer when she asks why her mother was killed.

"She wants these bad guys to say 'sorry' to her for her mom," Rivera said. "He's cold. No feeling at all."

Though permitted to address the court, Muhammad, who acted as his own lawyer through Tuesday's guilty verdicts, chose to stand in silence yesterday, letting one of his stand-by lawyers take over. Attorney J. Wyndal Gordon said Muhammad told him, "I said all I have to say."

Last Friday, in a nearly 3 1/2 -hour rambling closing argument, Muhammad said he had no remorse because he was not guilty.

Victims' relatives said that after Muhammad's closing argument, they were glad that he didn't speak.

Muhammad had contended that he and the state's star witness, Malvo, were framed in a vast law enforcement conspiracy. He continued to call Malvo "my son" throughout the trial, though Malvo blamed Muhammad for indoctrinating him and said the senior member of the sniper team was the triggerman for most of the shootings. Defense lawyer Gordon referred to Malvo as Muhammad's son in brief remarks yesterday.

But Muhammad had produced little to dent prosecutors' overwhelming forensic case, which Malvo capped with a gripping account of the shootings. Malvo has agreed to plead guilty to the same six slayings for which Muhammad was tried.

Through DNA, fingerprints and the bullet analysis, prosecutors linked the duo to the high-velocity rifle stowed behind the back seat of Muhammad's car and to the crimes. A juror said Muhammad's voice in court sounded just like that on a voice recorder found in Muhammad's car.

Three jurors returned to court for the sentencing. One, who asked to be identified only as Debbie, said she was pleased with the sentence but wished that the death penalty had been an option. She said Muhammad's closing argument did not help him.

"You could see the anger behind him, especially during the closing," she said. "He raised his voice, his eyes were wide."

Juror Claudia Lopez-Cuevas, 21, an employee with the Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, disagreed that Muhammad should have received another death sentence.

"Life in prison sounds like he got what he deserved," she said.

"When he defended himself, he showed no remorse. In his mind, he really thinks he didn't do this," she said. "Even though he says he's innocent, the evidence is clear."

Muhammad is unlikely to serve the Maryland sentence, which is to begin after the Virginia death sentence.

The sniper slayings terrorized the Washington region for three weeks in October 2002. Thirteen people were shot, 10 fatally, as people from Baltimore to Richmond lived in fear that they might be next in the cross hairs. On Tuesday, the jury convicted Muhammad in the murders of James D. Martin, 55; James L. "Sonny" Buchanan Jr., 39; Premkumar A. Walekar, 54; Sarah Ramos, 34; Lewis-Rivera, 25; and Johnson, 35.

In court, Gordon started to complain that Muhammad did not receive a fair trial, but Ryan cut him off, saying such statements belonged in an appeals court.

Gordon extended condolences to the victims' families. But, he told the judge, "I'm not convinced Mr. Muhammad is the man."

Despite some contentious moments - Ryan once threatened to hold Gordon in contempt - Ryan praised the stand-by legal team for its dedication and long, unpaid hours. Muhammad had fired his public defenders after they said he was mentally ill. The judge promised to search for funds to reimburse the stand-by lawyers from Baltimore - Gordon, A. Jai Bonner and Russell Neverdon Sr. - for their expenses.

Asked what Muhammad was writing before he was removed from the courtroom, Gordon replied that Muhammad was signing his appeals notices.