After thought, prayer on decision, jurors 'know we made the right one'
By By Gail Gibson and Stephen Kiehl
Nov 25, 2003 | 3:00 AM
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - When they filed into the windowless deliberations room Friday morning to begin weighing the fate of convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad, not every juror saw the shooting attacks that horrified the country as an automatic case for the death penalty.
Dennis J. Bowman, a 52-year-old hardware store clerk, thought of the grainy home videos the jury had watched of Muhammad playing with his young children and of the heartbreaking letters the children had written Muhammad, expressing their love. In the panel's first informal vote, Bowman voted for a sentence of life in prison.
He was not alone in his reservations.
Elizabeth S. Young, 45, a former Navy intelligence officer now working as a policy analyst, found herself suddenly confronted with the question of whether she could impose a death sentence after a lifetime of thinking of herself as a "death penalty agnostic."
"I always knew it was out there, but I didn't know how I felt about," said Young, who has three school-age children. "When you actually sit down and consider it, you realize what an incredibly serious decision it is."
Before the jury recessed for the day Friday without reaching a decision after four hours of discussion, Young asked Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. whether she could do some outside legal research over the weekend into the death penalty.
Millette told her that was not allowed, but the question touched off speculation about a divided jury and raised the possibility of a deadlock.
Yesterday morning, the panel of seven women and five men made clear that was not the case. After resuming deliberations just after 9 a.m., the jury announced 90 minutes later that it had reached a unanimous decision - two death sentences for the 42-year-old Persian Gulf war veteran in connection with the sniper attacks in October last year that left 10 people dead and three wounded.
It was the totality of the violence - "all of the evidence, all of the events," said jury foreman Jerry M. Haggerty - that led the group of mainly middle-class professionals to vote for death.
Jurors who acknowledged initial misgivings said that over the weekend they had quietly weighed the legal issues, prayed in some instances and listened to their hearts as they reached a final decision.
After a nearly sleepless weekend, Dennis Bowman made up his mind Sunday night that he would vote for the death penalty. He said he was concerned most about Muhammad's dangerousness, and he thought a death sentence would "put an end to this - once and for all."
Young said she prayed. She took a break from thinking about the case Saturday night to go out to dinner with her husband, a schoolteacher. By yesterday morning, she knew she would vote for a death sentence for Muhammad, but that has not entirely settled her thinking about capital punishment.
"It's possible that in the future, I may become an anti-death penalty activist," Young said. "But for now, I felt I had to fulfill my obligations as a juror and meet the requirements of the law."
When she asked about doing research into the death penalty, Young said she wanted to know how the death penalty was carried out in other states and other countries.
"And I still want to know," said Young, who added that she would start looking for those answers as soon as she returned home yesterday.
The weight of the case tugged at each of the jurors, even those who came more quickly to a decision about the death penalty, in different ways.
Heather M. Best-Teague, a 31-year-old bartender, said in a shaky voice that she went home and cried every night of the trial, the often gruesome and graphic evidence of the slayings vivid in her mind.
As with others on the panel, she found small ways to cope: Not allowed to read any media reports about the trial, she took pleasure in the fact she was still allowed each morning to read her horoscope.
The jury included two nurses and two engineers, retirees, a real estate agent and a credit union worker. Their ages ranged from 20 to 62. The panel was mostly white, with one African-American member. All of them put their routine lives on hold for more than six weeks to serve in what was one of the region's highest-profile trials.
"I can tell you personally, I have not had a full night's sleep since this thing started, and I probably won't in a while," said Haggerty, the 55-year-old foreman, who is a retired Navy captain and now works as an information technology manager.
Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, the jurors declined to describe in detail their 5 1/2 hours of deliberations in the penalty phase of Muhammad's trial. Although, said Bowman,
one juror asked whether it would be best if the jury ended the sad cycle of violence that began with the sniper attacks last fall by choosing a life sentence for Muhammad instead of execution.
Bowman said he thought about Muhammad's children and the life they faced without a father. But then, he said he decided, "I had to think about the other people's children."
Other jurors said they reached the decision for a death sentence when they looked for even the slightest sign that Muhammad was sorry for what had happened but saw none.
"I tried to pay attention to his demeanor the whole time, and I looked for something in him that might have shown remorse," said Robert L. Elliott, 28, a biomedical technician. "I just never saw it in him."
In the end, Haggerty said, "the violence was there across the board" and so was the vote for death.