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Jurors say Muhammad should be put to death

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - After tearful jurors decided he could spread harm even "if he's locked up in the deepest hole," John Allen Muhammad stood dry-eyed and unflinching yesterday as he heard the jury say he should be put to death for waging suburban sniper warfare that took 10 lives during three weeks of terror last fall.

The jury of seven women and five men handed their verdict to the judge at 10:50 a.m., after a little more than five hours of deliberations. Some dabbed their eyes with tissues as the clerk of the court read the two death sentences against Muhammad, one for each count of capital murder against him.

Lead prosecutor Paul B. Ebert called the sentences "a victory for society." For Ebert's team and for some families of the victims, the unanimous death sentences were a gratifying end to the six-week trial, which included emotional testimony about the sniper shootings that wounded three and caused widespread fear around the nation's capital in October last year.

Bob Meyers, the brother of one of the sniper victims, exhaled heavily and put his arm around a relative as the sentence was read. Muhammad's lead attorney, Peter D. Greenspun, swallowed and removed his glasses. Muhammad stared at the clerk, blinking, his hands clasped in front of him.

In interviews, jurors said they were at first about evenly split on whether the Persian Gulf war veteran should be executed or sentenced to life in prison. But after they considered the possible future danger he posed, his lack of remorse and the nature of his crimes, they said, they agreed on a death sentence faster than they agreed about his guilt last week.

"You can see the wheels turning in his head," said juror Dennis Bowman, 52, a hardware store clerk who had initially voted to spare Muhammad's life. "He's going to bide his time and somewhere down the road, in the next 20 years, if he's locked up in the deepest hole, sooner or later he's going to find an opportunity to harm someone else. And that's what brought me around to vote for the death penalty and put an end to this once and for all."

Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. will formally sentence Muhammad, 42, in February. Under Virginia law, a judge has the option of reducing a jury's recommended death sentence to life in prison. But that is rare and not expected in this case, which was steered to Virginia by the federal government because of the state's record in securing death sentences.

Muhammad will join 27 other inmates on Virginia's death row at Sussex I State Prison in Waverly.

With the state's rapid appeals system, the average time in Virginia between sentencing and execution is about five years. Virginia death row inmates are executed by lethal injection unless they choose electrocution.

"Death has been swirling around this courthouse for weeks and weeks," said Jonathan Shapiro, one of Muhammad's attorneys, adding that the defense team had no quarrel with a conscientious jury that applied the law as it was given to them. "We do and continue to have deep disagreement with a system that sanctions any kind of killing."

Prosecutors and some relatives of those who died in the sniper attacks said the sentence was appropriate and just. Ebert, speaking on the courthouse steps, repeated that Muhammad is "the worst of the worst." He stood surrounded by 15 prosecutors and sniper task force members who have worked on the case for the past year.

Ebert said he isn't sure why Muhammad and his suspected accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, came to the Washington region. One theory is that Muhammad wanted to terrorize his former wife, Mildred, who took their children to Clinton, Md., two years ago in a move that precipitated Muhammad's unraveling. Another theory is that Muhammad wanted to extort $10 million from the government.

"One thing's for sure," Ebert said. "They took pleasure in terrorizing people, they took pleasure in killing people, and that's the kind of man who doesn't deserve to be in society."

The trial took its toll on the jurors. Heather M. Best-Teague said she went home and cried every night. Elizabeth S. Young said she might become an anti-death penalty activist. The foreman, Jerry M. Haggerty, said he hadn't had a full night's sleep since the trial began and that he doesn't expect to get one soon.

Jurors said they saw something of themselves in the faces and lives of those were gunned down in so many ordinary places - the civil engineer who was pumping gas, the FBI analyst who was loading purchases for her new home into her car, the computer consultant who was holding his wife's hand in the parking lot of a suburban steakhouse.

They say they also saw the faces of their children in Iran Brown, the 13-year-old boy who took the stand to testify about being shot in the abdomen outside his middle school on a clear day last fall and who told his aunt as she rushed him to a medical center, "I love you."

Best-Teague, a 31-year-old sports pub bartender and mother of two, said outside court, "The hardest thing for me is that John Muhammad has children, and I know what it would be like to never see mine again."

Ebert, asked about letters Muhammad's young children sent to him in jail recently, professing their love for him "no matter what," said, "There's no doubt his children loved him, but he didn't love our children."

Left unanswered yesterday was whether other jurisdictions touched by the sniper killings will try Muhammad. Seven of the sniper shootings occurred in Maryland. And authorities in Alabama, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Washington state have linked him to killings there.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner would have to sign an extradition order for Muhammad to be sent to any other state for trial. His press secretary said that as of yesterday, the governor had not received any extradition requests.

Warner has spoken with Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. about extradition in recent days, but Warner will not make a final decision until after Muhammad's final sentencing, his press secretary said.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said yesterday that he doesn't think it's necessary to have more trials, even though six of the killings occurred in his county. "I would hope we don't have trial after trial where we're dragging the families of the victims through this again and again," Duncan said.

Jurors said it was not any particular piece of evidence or witness testimony that pushed them to a death sentence. Rather, they said, it was the totality of the case that overwhelmed them - the parade of victims' relatives, the harrowing 911 calls and the pile of circumstantial evidence tying Muhammad to the crimes.

"Certainly, the death penalty is an extremely difficult verdict to make," said Haggerty, the 55-year-old jury foreman and a retired Navy captain. "It was the total aspect of all of the evidence, all of the events. There was no single thing we could pinpoint."

Much of the prosecution's evidence came from Muhammad's blue, beat-up 1990 Chevrolet Caprice. Muhammad and Malvo were in the car at a Frederick County rest stop when authorities caught up with them Oct. 24 last year. Perhaps most damning, the car contained a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle that was later conclusively linked to 16 shootings nationwide.

Prosecutors contend that the rifle was fired from the trunk in many of the sniper shootings, with its muzzle sticking out a hole cut above the license plate and the trunk lid lifted slightly to provide room for the scope. Forensic experts testified that they found gunshot residue in the trunk of the Caprice, a former police car.

Also found in the car was a laptop computer containing electronic maps of the shooting scenes, some marked with a skull and crossbones, and the draft of a letter demanding money for an end to the killings. A note left in the woods near the scene of one shooting demanded $10 million. Malvo's fingerprints were found on the note.

Several of the jurors studied Muhammad's demeanor throughout the trial, and they said his apparent lack of remorse or emotion made it hard to feel compassion for him. Family members of those who were killed echoed those sentiments at a news conference yesterday.

"To this point, I haven't seen any remorse," said Bob Meyers, whose brother Dean Meyers, 53, was killed while pumping gas at a Manassas, Va., Sunoco station. "Not only does there appear to be no remorse, but there appears to be no responsibility taken as well."

Bob Meyers has said all along that he favored the death penalty for his brother's killer, but he said yesterday, "I do not revel in the decision. It is a weighty one. It is not to be taken lightly, but I do believe that it is a decision that's right and proper."

Defense attorney Peter Greenspun said he was "bitterly disappointed" with the jury's sentence. He indicated that he saw grounds for appeal on both capital murder convictions -- one under an anti-terror law that had never been used before and one under a multiple killings law that requires the defendant to be the "direct participant."

"There's been much pain and devastation," Greenspun said. "The sanction of another death by the government is not likely to come as any good to anyone."

The jurors were excused from the courtroom at 10:56 yesterday morning, prosecutors thanking them as they filed out for the last time. Muhammad, still standing, then briefly whispered to his lawyers and shook their hands. After Greenspun patted him on the back, Muhammad buttoned his olive blazer and was escorted from the courtroom.

Sun staff writer Gail Gibson contributed to this article.