"The euphemism, 'triggerman,' is inadequate to describe the breadth of criminal responsibility subject to the death penalty in Virginia," Lemons wrote. " . . . It is the actual participation together in a unified act that permits two or more persons to be immediate perpetrators."
The three dissenting judges characterized Muhammad's role as analogous to a lookout or wheelman. They said he was improperly convicted of capital murder because his support was indirect.
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)
"The Commonwealth and the majority opinion reach beyond any precedent of this court and ignore clear foundations of the criminal law that have long defined the distinction between principals of the first and second degree," Justice G. Steven Agee wrote.
Warner's spokesman, Kevin Hall, said that the ruling marks the end of Muhammad's prosecution in Virginia and that the governor might be ready to send the case to another jurisdiction. The last remaining murder charge against Muhammad in Virginia will not go to trial because of the cost and time involved, the Spotsylvania County prosecutor said last month.
"We are in contact with prosecutors in Maryland, Alabama and Louisiana, and we expect to make some decisions about extradition in the coming days," Hall said.
Muhammad faces six murder charges in Montgomery County, one in the District and one each in Baton Rouge, La., and Montgomery, Ala.
Ebert said he believes Muhammad should not be sent out of Virginia just yet.
"We'll be talking with the governor's office," he said. "In these types of cases, nothing is ever over with."
Ebert said he had called families of some of the victims to convey news of the ruling. One family asked for an execution date, he said. Ebert estimated it would take at least five years.
Douglas F. Gansler, state's attorney for Montgomery County, said yesterday was "a day to rejoice for the victims of the crimes."
"It should provide great solace and comfort for the victims in those two homicides, as well as some comfort level to the remaining victims, their families and the communities affected as a whole," he said.
Muhammad and Malvo, now 20, were arrested Oct. 24, 2002, at a rest stop in Frederick County. Then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft mediated a dispute over where to prosecute the first sniper cases before sending them to Virginia. Muhammad was assigned to Prince William County, where Meyers was shot dead, and Malvo was sent to Fairfax County, where Linda G. Franklin was killed outside a Home Depot. Malvo was convicted of capital murder, but a jury spared his life, sentencing him to life in prison.
Prosecutors in both cases filed the same two charges against the sniper suspects: committing two or more murders in a three-year period and committing murder as an act of terrorism. Both charges carried the death penalty.
The Supreme Court noted that no other state has reviewed a death sentence based on a terrorism law.
The majority opinion was at times strikingly caustic.
"Muhammad and his sniper team partner, Malvo, randomly selected innocent victims," the opinion said. "With calculation, extensive planning, premeditation and ruthless disregard for life, Muhammad carried out his cruel scheme of terror."
Staff writers Tom Jackman and Tara Young contributed to this report.