VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — A jury convicted John Allen
Muhammad of capital murder yesterday, concluding he used a rifle, a
beat-up car and a teenager who idolized him to kill randomly and
terrorize the Washington area during last year’s sniper
spree.

Mira Levitan
Sniper John Allen Muhammad looks around the Virginia Beach Circuit Court after being found guilty yesterday on four charges of capital murder. (AP PHOTO)

The jury will now decide whether the Army veteran should be
sentenced to death or life in prison. The penalty phase was to
begin in the afternoon.

Muhammad, 42, stood impassively as the verdict was read, looking
forward. Two jurors held hands, and two others were crying.

The jury deliberated for 6 1/2 hours before convicting Muhammad
of two counts of capital murder. One accused him of taking part in
multiple murders, the other — the result of a post-Sept. 11
terrorism law — alleged the killings were designed to
terrorize the population. Muhammad is the first person tried under
the Virginia law.

Muhammad was found guilty of killing Dean Harold Meyers, a
Vietnam veteran who was cut down by a single bullet that hit him in
the head on Oct. 9, 2002, as he filled his tank at a Manassas gas
station. He was also found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder
and use of a firearm in a felony.

The victim’s brother Robert said he believes Muhammad
deserves the death penalty: “I must say that I can’t
think of too many more heinous crimes than this one.”

Fellow suspect Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, is on trial separately in
nearby Chesapeake for the killing of Linda Franklin at a Home Depot
in Falls Church. He also could get the death penalty. Malvo’s
attorneys are pursuing an insanity defense, arguing that the young
man had been “indoctrinated” by Muhammad.

In all, the two men were accused of shooting 19 people —
killing 13 and wounding six — in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana,
Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., in what prosecutors said
was an attempt to extort $10 million from the government.

The verdict came after three weeks of testimony in which a
series of victims and other witnesses graphically — and often
tearfully — recalled the horror that gripped the Washington
area during the sniper attacks.

Ten people were killed in the region and three were wounded,
many of them shot as they went about their daily tasks: shopping at
a crafts store, buying groceries, mowing the lawn, going to
school.

At the height of the killings, the area was so terrified that
sports teams were forced to practice indoors, people kept their
heads down as they pumped gas, and teachers drew the blinds on
their classroom windows.

At one point during the spree, a handwritten letter was found
tacked to a tree near the Virginia restaurant where a man was shot,
and it included the chilling postscript: “Your children are
not safe anywhere at any time.” A tarot card left near a
shooting outside a school declared: “Call me God.”

“Hopefully, the jury’s decision will help bring some
comfort to the families whose lives were senselessly taken and
those who were injured,” White House spokesman Scott
McClellan said in Washington.

Prosecutors presented no direct evidence that Muhammad fired the
.223-caliber Bushmaster rifle used in the killings, but said it
didn’t matter. They described Muhammad as the “captain
of a killing team” and portrayed him as Malvo’s father
figure, a stern and controlling man who trained the teenager to do
his bidding.

“That is a young man he molded and made an instrument of
death and destruction,” Prince William County
Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert said in closing
arguments.

Ebert said that Muhammad came off as a polite man, but that his
calm demeanor masked a calculating and sinister side:
“He’s the kind of man who could pat you on the back and
cut your throat.”

The defense said the evidence did not prove Muhammad directed
the shootings or fired the gun in the Meyers slaying. Attorney
Peter Greenspun said in his closing statement that prosecutors had
“pounded” jurors with gory photos and heartbreaking
witness testimony to persuade them to make an emotional
decision.

The prosecution provided several key pieces of evidence linking
Muhammad to the shootings, including ballistics tests that linked
the rifle found in his car to nearly all the shootings, and
testimony that his DNA was on the weapon. Prosecutors also
presented a stolen laptop discovered in the beat-up blue 1990
Chevrolet Caprice that contained maps of six shooting scenes, each
marked with skull-and-crossbones icons.

Prosecutors said the car had been adapted so someone concealed
inside the vehicle could fire a rifle through a hole in the
trunk.

The case took a strange twist on the first day of the trial when
Muhammad fired his court-appointed attorneys and began representing
himself. He delivered a rambling opening statement and
cross-examined witnesses for one day before handing the defense
back to his lawyers.

For the next three weeks, witness after witness recounted the
effects of the attacks in chilling detail. William Franklin
recalled being splattered with his wife’s blood outside a
Home Depot. A retiree described seeing a woman slumped over on a
bench, blood pouring from her head. The only child shot during the
spree testified: “I put my book bag down and I got
shot.”

Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore said the verdicts
validate Virginia’s law that subjects terrorists to the death
penalty.

“The anti-terrorism law worked. It was written in response
to and in the aftermath of 9-11, but it was written broadly enough
to include individuals who terrorize a community,” said
Kilgore, a Republican who presented the legislation, passed in
2002. “The snipers terrorized an entire state. People were
afraid to go to the mall, afraid to take their kids to school,
afraid to pump gas.”

At Malvo’s trial yesterday, an FBI agent testified that
the suspect refused to identify himself and was defiantly silent
when he and Muhammad were arrested in October 2002 at a highway
rest stop.

FBI agent Charles Pierce, leader of the team that arrested the
pair, described how agents took Malvo and Muhammad by surprise at
the rest stop in Maryland, smashing two of the windows in their
car. Malvo was asleep in the front seat and Muhammad was in the
back, Pierce said.

Pierce said he asked Malvo four times to give his name, and
Malvo refused.

“I would characterize it as defiant silence,” Pierce
said.

 

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