A year after a chain of sniper shootings paralyzed the D.C. area, a Virginia jury found suspected sniper John Allen Muhammad guilty of capital murder Monday. The jury must now decide whether Muhammad will be sentenced to death or get life in prison.
Muhammad, along with his teenage accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, allegedly participated in 19 shootings that killed 13 people and wounded another six in the District, Maryland and Virginia. Malvo is being tried for murder separately in Chesapeake, Va.
The jury deliberated for six and a half hours over a period of two days before convicting Muhammad of murdering Dean Meyers of Prince William County, Md. Muhammad was also found guilty under an anti-terrorism law passed in 2002 by the Virginia State Assembly.
The law defines terrorism as an act that instills fear in civilians or attempts to influence government policies and activities by coercive means.
Muhammad was connected to the sniper shootings by DNA testing and the discovery of the murder weapon in his car. However, the prosecution did not present direct evidence that Muhammad was the shooter.
GW law professor Robert Cottrol, an expert on the death penalty, said the anti-terrorism law eliminates a requirement that the defendant must be proven to be the actual shooter in order to be eligible for the death penalty.
Cottrol said Muhammad most likely would have been found guilty of capital murder regardless of whether he was tried under the anti-terrorism law.
“If you took the murder count alone, the fact that (Muhammad) was there, participated in the planning and encouraged the murders is enough,” he said.
Although five of the 19 shootings occurred in Virginia, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft wanted Muhammad and Malvo to be tried there because the state expedites its capital punishment cases, Cottrol said.
“The (capital punishment) process is fairly slow in Maryland. It is much more streamlined in Virginia,” he said.
According to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Virginia trails only Texas in performing the greatest number of executions in the country.
Tim Murtaugh, director of communications for the Virginia Office of the Attorney General, said the office petitioned for the murder trials to be conducted in Virginia “because (the state has) the best laws available and most experienced lawyers.”
“Compared to other jurisdictions, we felt that Virginia had a wide range of laws, including the anti-terrorism law,” he said.
Murtaugh said prosecutors were proud of the anti-terrorism law because it “gave the prosecutors an additional tool.”
The duration of Muhammad’s sentencing phase will depend on the amount of evidence presented to the jury, Cottrol said.
He said the prosecution would attempt to convince the jury to give Muhammad the death penalty by emphasizing the “heinous nature of the crime.”
He also said the prosecution would highlight “the impact on victims’ families.”
He said the defense attorney “will try to stress (Muhammad’s) good character before the incidents and psychological abnormalities that may have caused or contributed to killings” in an attempt to save his client’s life.