Md. appeals court upholds six sniper murder convictions

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's Court of Special Appeals upheld yesterday the six first-degree murder convictions of John Allen Muhammad for his role in the sniper shootings in Montgomery County, comparing his crimes to those of Jack the Ripper.

The ruling by the judicial panel used emotionally charged language to describe how Muhammad and his teenage accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, terrorized the Washington region, shooting 13 people - killing 10 of them - during three weeks in October 2002.

"Jack the Ripper has never yet been brought to justice. The Beltway snipers have been," the decision concludes.

Muhammad, 46, who is in prison in Virginia facing a death sentence, received six sentences of life in prison in June 2006. Malvo, who received similar sentences in Maryland, is also serving six life sentences in Virginia.

The 152-page decision parsed and dismissed as harmless Muhammad's nine contentions of error, including his competence to stand trial, his decision to represent himself and the exclusion of defense witnesses and evidence.

"We're obviously thrilled with the result," said Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy. "It was anticipated by us. We were confident that the case was tried well."

Attorneys who advised Muhammad during the trial said they, too, were not surprised by the ruling, though it disappointed them.

Muhammad represented himself, but J. Wyndal Gordon, the "standby" attorney who filed the request for appeal, said he was "very disturbed by the fact that the legal errors were merely considered harmless."

Muhammad was originally represented by public defenders and later represented himself, which complicated the filing for the appeal, said standby counsel A. Jai Bonner, who said she was appalled by the way the trial proceeded.

"There was no one cohesive group that knew the history from start to finish," Bonner said.

"As much as the monster that the world thinks that he was, he was still entitled to a fair trial, and he got nothing close to that," Bonner said. "We're in real trouble when we start deciding that some people deserve a fair trial and some people don't."

The appellate court judges did not agree, calling it "a meticulously prepared and superbly conducted trial."

"Mr. Muhammad had his day in court in Montgomery County and had his day in court in the Court of Special Appeals," said Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who was Montgomery County state's attorney during the sniper trial.

It's unclear whether Muhammad will appeal further. "I'm hopeful that this signals an end to this case and this is the final chapter," McCarthy said.

However, the defendant maintained his innocence throughout the trial, so Gordon believes he will pursue an appeal to the Court of Appeals. But that court only takes a fraction of the cases presented to it. The decision might ultimately be up to the public defenders' office, which filed the appeal in this case, Gordon said.

Early in the 152-page decision, the six Maryland victims Muhammad is accused of shooting are named. "Ironically, it is John Muhammad who is aggrieved at the way he was treated by Montgomery County, as he now complains," the decision reads.

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