Jury weighs 2 portraits: cold killer or loving dad
By By Stephen Kiehl
Nov 21, 2003 | 3:00 AM
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - The life of John Allen Muhammad was placed last night into the hands of a jury that must reconcile two conflicting portraits of the convicted sniper - one of a gentle and polite man who loved his children, another of a remorseless killer who orchestrated a deadly rampage that terrified millions.
The jury of seven women and five men was shown gruesome autopsy photos of the sniper victims, their bodies bloodied and destroyed, in an attempt to show the vileness of Muhammad's crimes. But the jury also saw home videos of Muhammad playing with his children - videos that showed a laughing, loving father.
"There once was a good father, a good husband, a good friend," said prosecutor James A. Willett in his closing argument. "That person no longer exists. That person is dead. That person was murdered by the embodiment of malice that sits before you today. That person was murdered by this individual just as clearly and completely and viciously as everyone else."
Prosecutors said Muhammad is "the worst of the worst," exactly the sort of person for whom the death penalty is reserved, and asked the jury to impose the ultimate punishment.
The jury's other option is life in prison without possibility of parole. The panel will begin deliberations this morning.
Defense attorneys invoked the names of Muhammad's three children, his family and his friends in telling jurors that the death penalty mostly punishes those who remain. The attorneys did not try to say that Muhammad's life is more valuable than those he is convicted of killing. Rather, they said that such a balancing is the wrong way to see the case.
"If you put the loss of lives and grief on one side, and John's life on the other, the scale is out of kilter. Death is automatic," said attorney Jonathan Shapiro. "But in another view of the world, a scale is just not the right device. A human life does not get put on a scale. Rather, all life is important, and we don't rush to kill in order to right a wrong."
Muhammad was convicted Monday in the Washington-area sniper shootings that left 10 dead and three wounded in October 2002. Prosecutors have linked him to other killings, from the Pacific Northwest to the Deep South. Yesterday, they showed photos of those victims - in life and in death - to jurors.
In making a case for the death penalty, Virginia prosecutors must prove more than Muhammad's guilt. They must show that it is likely that Muhammad will commit violent acts in the future or that his conduct was "outrageously and wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman," according to the instructions given the jury.
If jurors find that either condition exists, they can impose the death penalty, though they are not required to do so.
Defense attorneys emphasized to the jurors their right to vote their conscience and not to be bullied by other members of the panel. The death sentence must be unanimous. If even one juror refuses to vote for death, then Muhammad would be sentenced to life.
"You have the right, each and every one of you, by yourselves, to say no to death," Shapiro said in his 50-minute closing argument, his voice earnest as he pleaded for life.
"If you believe in your heart that death is simply inappropriate, then you may so declare. It can be the sort of reason you can't even express, except to feel in your heart it's not the right thing to do."
The closing arguments, which began after 4:30 p.m. and lasted until almost 7 p.m., were delivered in a hushed courtroom packed with victims' families and Muhammad's friends and relatives as the trial reached an emotional climax.
The sisters of victims Linda Franklin and Hong Im Ballenger sat next to each other and laced their arms. They broke down and comforted each other as the killings were recounted.
All told, prosecutors said, the sniper victims left behind 21 children, from infants to adults. They said the home videos shown earlier in the day of Muhammad cavorting with his children - bathing them, bowling with them and playing soccer with them - were an insult.
"I think it's outrageous and shameless that he would prey upon your sympathies with his very own children," Willett said. "What about that list of schools we found in the car from Baltimore? Good father? Loving parent? Decent human being? He doesn't care about children or human life or anything that God put on this Earth except himself."
As has been the case throughout the trial, Muhammad showed little emotion as prosecutors railed against him. But when his attorney read in a quiet voice three letters Muhammad's young children sent him last week, Muhammad hung his head, rubbed his hands in front of him on the defense table and appeared to blink back tears.
Five rows behind him, in the rear of the courtroom, his elder sister and younger brother cried and wiped their eyes. Earlier in the day, they had testified to their family's difficult life in Louisiana. Muhammad was born in New Orleans, the second youngest of six. His father had another family and abandoned Muhammad's mother.
She died of breast cancer when Muhammad was 2, after undergoing a mastectomy and suffering intense pain because the family could not afford medication. As a baby, Muhammad slept in his mother's bed and later clung to her wherever she went, his sister testified.
"It was like a cat with her kitty," said Aurolyn Marie Williams, 45. "My mom made a step or moved, John moved."
But in his rebuttal to the defense closing argument, lead prosecutor Paul B. Ebert said the John Muhammad who sat in the courtroom was a very different person from the one his friends and family described. And Ebert rejected the suggestion that Muhammad should be allowed to live for his children's sake.
"Those poor children have become victims of what he's done," Ebert said. "It's tragic they had to write letters to profess their love to him. But he caused that. Nobody else in the world caused that but him. The victims that you've heard from are no more victims than his own family."
Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike say Muhammad's life came undone after he lost custody of his three young children in September 2001. Previously, he had abducted the children and taken them to Antigua for a year and a half. When he returned to Washington state, the children were seized by authorities and turned over to their mother.
But prosecutors say there is no excuse for what Muhammad did.
"How many people do you know who have divorces and custody battles?" Ebert asked jurors. "Use your common sense: Do they go out and kill people, one after another?"
In asking for the death penalty, Ebert said it would prevent Muhammad from committing further violence, serve as a deterrent for those who might contemplate similar crimes and provide solace to victims' families.
"They feel better in their heart because they know the person who took away their loved one will get the same fate their loved ones did," Ebert said.
Then, stalking across the courtroom and pointing his finger at Muhammad, he said: "This man is the worst of the worst. He knows it and I know it."
But Shapiro said to kill Muhammad would be to underestimate the human capacity to change. And the defense attorney suggested that Muhammad can still change into something better, even if he spends the rest of his life in prison.
"Folks, when that family was ripped from him, his world collapsed," Shapiro said. "This was a human being. This was a person like you and me. This was a good, solid man. His foundation cracked. Something went terribly wrong."
Shapiro argued that it is possible to grieve for the dead and wounded and still believe that further killing is wrong. And he asked jurors if they would be more comfortable explaining to their children why they spared a killer's life instead of why they sentenced him to die.
"I think you can tell them you felt the weight of a human life in your hands. Ladies and gentlemen, I now pass the baton of that life to you," Shapiro said. "There's been enough death."
Sun staff writers Stephanie Desmon and Gail Gibson contributed to this article.