MANASSAS, Va. - A judge ruled yesterday that prosecutors will not necessarily have to prove that sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad fired the shot that killed a man to get the death penalty.
Circuit Judge LeRoy Millette Jr. also ruled that prosecutors do not have to tell defense attorneys their theory about whether Muhammad or fellow sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo fired the shot.
Muhammad is charged with capital murder under two statutes. One is a new state anti-terrorism law that requires no proof of who pulled the trigger. But the law had never been used before the sniper shooting case and is subject to a constitutional challenge. The other statute allows for the death penalty in cases of multiple murders. Typically, only the triggerman has been eligible for the death penalty under this law.
But Millette agreed with prosecutors who argued that it is irrelevant who fired the weapon. Citing the wording in the multiple-murder law, he agreed that prosecutors will have to demonstrate only that Muhammad was "a principal in the first degree" to the crime to be eligible for the death penalty.
"I agree with [prosecutor James] Willett. I think the term triggerman is used inadvisably," Millette said. Defense attorneys disputed that interpretation and filed a motion challenging Muhammad's indictment under the statute. Unless someone is the triggerman, he should be indicted for murder in the first degree, defense lawyer Jonathan Shapiro argued before the judge.
Prosecutors in Prince William County, where Muhammad is being tried, have not said if they have evidence implicating Muhammad as the triggerman in the Oct. 9 death of Dean Harold Meyers at a Manassas-area gas station. Prosecutors have said only Malvo's fingerprints were found on the Bushmaster rifle that was used during the three-week sniper spree in October.
Muhammad, 42, and Malvo, 18, have been accused of 20 shootings, including 13 deaths, in Virginia, Maryland, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Washington, D.C. Prosecutors have said the shootings were part of a scheme to extort $10 million from the government.