From the start, authorities aimed for death sentences in sniper cases

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - From the start, from the night last fall that John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested as they slept at a Maryland rest stop in the Chevrolet Caprice that prosecutors later would call a killing machine, everything about the case against them was designed to reach this end.

A death sentence - and the swiftest, surest way to secure one - was the guiding factor as authorities, led by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, debated where to try the two men accused of carrying out the Washington-area sniper attacks that left 10 dead and three wounded.

For the government and many grieving relatives of the victims, the payoff to that unusual process of picking a jurisdiction for prosecution came yesterday, with a jury's decision after less than six hours of deliberations here that Muhammad, 42, should die for the crimes.

But while bringing a speedy resolution, the first of the two sniper trials did little to explain what prompted last fall's terrifying attacks, and attorneys for Muhammad and other experienced lawyers remained wary of a process that put the penalty ahead of all else.

"What is more unseemly than the attorney general of the United States saying, 'We're going to go to Virginia, where Mr. Muhammad will be killed?'" one of Muhammad's court-appointed attorneys, Peter D. Greenspun, said in paraphrase outside the courthouse late yesterday morning.

Maryland was the state most closely associated with last year's attacks. But top U.S. Justice Department officials determined that Virginia was the place more likely to execute both suspects. Ashcroft announced the decision to hold the first trials in Virginia, saying it was "imperative that the ultimate sanction be available for those who have committed this crime."

The Justice Department declined to comment on yesterday's outcome, calling it a local matter that was best addressed by local prosecutors.

Paul B. Ebert, the chief prosecutor for Prince William County, Va., told reporters he took no pleasure in securing the death sentence - his 13th as commonwealth's attorney for the Northern Virginia county - but he called it the right outcome.

"There are certain cases that deserve the death penalty, and we felt this was one of them," Ebert said. "We said from the get-go that the death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst. We think Mr. Muhammad fell into that category, and we think the jury agreed."

For relatives of the victims, it brought mixed reactions. Relatives of Dean H. Meyers, who was killed as he pumped gas at a gas station near Manassas, Va., on Oct. 9, 2002, told reporters yesterday that the jury's decision brought a sense of justice.

But they acknowledged that not everyone in the family supports the death penalty.

"Our family, being religious, struggles with the issue of the death penalty, just like the rest of America does," said Larry Meyers Jr., a nephew to Dean Meyers. "The people have spoken, and now God will judge Muhammad for himself."

Far off in Mountain Home, Idaho, the father of victim Lori AnnLewis-Rivera, 25, who was shot on Oct. 3, 2002, as she vacuumed her minivan, had little patience yesterday even for a swiftly delivered death sentence.

"Let me put it this way: We were disappointed when they didn't die in a hail of bullets when they were arrested," Marion "Boots" Lewis said in a telephone interview. Lewis said he had no interest in watching the trial, but he said he would like to attend the execution when it occurs. "If they don't have room for me in the gallery, then maybe I can push the button myself."

Muhammad and Malvo were arrested on federal warrants, which put the Justice Department in the uncommon position of determining where suspects in what were essentially state murder cases would stand trial.

"It was a very unusual position that DOJ could get involved," said Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor who was a high-ranking Justice official under the Clinton administration. Once the department stepped in, he said, the outcome was mostly pre-ordained.

"Certainly, within this area, there was no dispute that Virginia was a prime choice for where to hold the trials," Greenberger said. "I think everything leading up to today was very predictable."

One factor for authorities in moving the sniper trials to Virginia was that they could be charged under a Virginia anti-terrorism law that allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty without having to prove who was the triggerman in the crime.

Virginia ranks second in the nation, behind Texas, in executions. Virginia has put to death 89 people since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, including three this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Of the states predominantly affected by the sniper attacks, only Virginia allows the death penalty for people who are under 18 - as in the case of Muhammad's alleged accomplice, Malvo, who was 17 at the time. He is on trial in Chesapeake, Va.

The government's deliberate splitting of the cases and counties last fall suggested at first that authorities believed the men took turns firing on their victims and evidence could show each was the shooter in the county where he was charged.

That did not turn out to be the case. Prosecutors in Muhammad's trial, which centered on the killing of Meyers, could not conclusively put the gun in Muhammad's hand. In fact, Malvo claims responsibility for that killing in alleged confessions made public during his trial this month.

Maryland federal public defender James Wyda, Muhammad's original lawyer after last fall's arrest, said yesterday that the Justice Department's search for the "quickest and most certain path to a death sentence for John Muhammad" had come with costs.

With just a year to prepare for trial, defense lawyers in Virginia faced a severe time crunch to adequately investigate Muhammad's background and prepare a defense that fully addressed the complex, far-flung attacks, Wyda said.

"It had to be almost impossible to effectively tell their client's story," he said. "Mr. Muhammad should have been given that chance - for the justice system to work, for the process to have meaning, we all should have a chance to hear that story."

In Montgomery County, where six of the sniper victims were killed, State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler still would like a chance to tell the full story of the sniper attacks as well - in a local courtroom, where local victims, he said yesterday, could "have their day in court."

Gansler is one of several prosecutors across the country who have built a case against Muhammad and Malvo but were put on hold while the Virginia cases went forward. The question of whether there will be additional trials was an open one yesterday - Virginia Gov. Mark Warner would have to sign an extradition order for Muhammad to be sent to any other state for trial.

Gansler said he would pursue a death penalty case against Muhammad in Montgomery County, although he could face difficulty in doing so.

To seek a death sentence in Maryland, prosecutors must prove one of 10 "aggravating factors." The factor that most closely fit the sniper slayings in Montgomery County allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty when multiple homicides result from the "same incident."

Experienced prosecutors have said that the sniper attacks, which occurred at different times and different locations, did not appear to fit that definition. Gansler said yesterday that it should be a question put to a jury, one in Montgomery County.

"We have hundreds of years of jurisprudence in the United States that says trials take place where the crimes took place," Gansler said. "The prosecution in a trial is not solely aimed at the outcome in the trial. ... One of the compelling reasons we have trials is for some healing, on both sides."