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Va. Court Upholds Muhammad Sentences

Sniper Could Be Sent To Another State

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page B01

The Virginia Supreme Court yesterday upheld the convictions and death sentences of sniper John Allen Muhammad, saying he had acted with "breathless cruelty" in the shootings that killed 10 people in the Washington area in the fall of 2002.

After the ruling, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) indicated that he might now be willing to send Muhammad to another jurisdiction with charges pending against him.

Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert answers questions. With him are prosecutors Richard A. Conway, left, and James A. Willett. (Peter Cihelka -- AP)

But lawyers in the case said it was not over. "There's a lot more fighting to be done," said Jonathan Shapiro, who represented Muhammad in his 2003 trial and his appeal. Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert said he would ask Warner to keep Muhammad in Virginia.

Muhammad was convicted of two counts of capital murder in the slaying of Dean H. Meyers outside a Prince William gas station. Meyers was the 12th of 16 people shot over 47 days in September and October 2002 in four states and the District. A jury sentenced Muhammad to death on each count.

Muhammad, 44, based his appeal on two central claims: that a new anti-terrorism law that was the basis for one of the capital murder counts is unconstitutional and that he could not be put to death because the state had not proved he fired the shot that killed Meyers.

The Supreme Court was unanimous on the constitutionality of the terrorism statute but was divided 4 to 3 on the triggerman issue.

In all, Muhammad argued that 102 trial errors had been made. The Supreme Court rejected each one. On the contentious triggerman claim, the court ruled that it did not matter whether Muhammad or Lee Boyd Malvo fired the fatal shots because the pair acted as a team.

"Muhammad recruited a younger boy, Malvo, and carefully trained and guided him in this murderous enterprise," wrote Justice Donald W. Lemons in the majority opinion.

Noting the death toll, Lemons added, "If society's ultimate penalty should be reserved for the most heinous offenses, accompanied by proof of vileness or future dangerousness, then surely, this case qualifies."

Shapiro's co-counsel, Peter D. Greenspun, said the lawyers were reviewing the ruling to determine whether they could ask the state Supreme Court for a rehearing. They also could appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court or file further appeals in federal court, where other legal issues could be raised, he said.

"We felt, and still feel, there are substantive issues requiring a reversal of the conviction and the death penalty," he said. "We will continue doing everything possible to reverse this and save Mr. Muhammad's life."

From the moment Muhammad and Malvo were arrested, much of the legal wrangling has been over Muhammad's role in the sniper attacks.

Shapiro and Greenspun argued that their client could not be executed under the state's triggerman rule, which generally has held that a defendant must have fired a fatal shot to qualify for the death penalty. Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr., who presided over Muhammad's trial, ruled that prosecutors needed only prove that Muhammad's actions led directly to Meyers's death.

In a 139-page decision that went over the attacks in excruciating detail, the Supreme Court said Muhammad and Malvo had acted as a "sniper team" -- one acting as a long-range shooter in an obscured position in the trunk of a Chevrolet sedan, and one as a spotter using a walkie-talkie to inform the shooter when the victim came into firing range.

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