Muhammad Guilty on All Counts

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2003

John Allen Muhammad was convicted Monday of masterminding the terrifying sniper attacks that gripped the Washington region last fall and now faces a possible death sentence.

Jurors deliberated for 6 1/2 hours over two days before reaching their verdicts just after 11:30 a.m., finding Muhammad guilty of two counts of capital murder in the death of Dean H. Meyers in Prince William County. He also was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and of a firearms violation.

Prosecutors began presenting evidence in the penalty phase of the trial, arguing to the same jurors that the crimes were wantonly vile and that Muhammad poses a future danger to society -- claims that could result in a lethal injection.

Muhammad, who has shown very little emotion throughout his month-long trial, stood at attention as a clerk read the guilty verdicts at 11:57 a.m.

Two jurors wept as they were polled. One juror had trouble managing a weak "yes" as she appeared to struggle with her emotions. That juror, a 31-year-old bartender, has appeared emotional several times, weeping while listening to powerful 911 recordings and recoiling from bloody crime scene photographs. Other jurors looked to their left, where the relatives of Muhammad's victims sat together, some shedding tears quietly.

Muhammad's attorneys stood solemnly as their client was led out of the courtroom. Relatives of several sniper victims embraced in the gallery, and Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert stopped to hug victim Linda Franklin's daughter, Katrina Hannum. Prosecutors and defense attorneys declined to comment on the verdict because the sentencing phase is in progress.

The defense team now turns to trying to save Muhammad's life. They told the jury they plan to show that Muhammad still has "worth and value." Prosecutors, on the other hand, have begun to characterize Muhammad as a plotting killer with a "callous disregard for human life," as they push the idea that a custody dispute with his ex-wife, Mildred, led him to commit multiple killings.

Sources said Mildred Muhammad is expected to arrive at the Virginia Beach courthouse Tuesday and is likely to take the stand by the end of the day. It would be the first encounter between the two since she won custody of their three children in September 2001 -- an event that witnesses said changed and enraged John Muhammad. Witnesses also testified during the trial that he was trying to pinpoint her location in the Washington area just before the attacks began.

Although the jury's decision brought an end to more than a year of legal strife, it did not begin to address the issue of why Muhammad indiscriminately shot innocent people, allegedly with the help of a teenage accomplice. Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, is on trial on identical charges in neighboring Chesapeake, and his attorneys have acknowledged that he was part of the sniper team.

Muhammad, 42, became the first person to be convicted under Virginia's anti-terrorism law, which was enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The law was written for terror masterminds such as Osama bin Laden, and its application to Muhammad is sure to become a point of appeal.

The verdicts indicate that jurors accepted both prosecution theories about the Oct. 9, 2002, slaying of Meyers, 53, at a Sunoco gas station north of Manassas. Jurors found that Meyers was killed as part of a terror plot and that he was one of at least two people whom Muhammad killed within three years. Although jurors did not have to specify what other slayings they believed Muhammad committed, evidence presented at his trial linked Meyers's death to the Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle used in 16 shootings that killed 10 people.

The Bushmaster was found when Muhammad and Malvo were arrested in an aging blue Chevrolet Caprice, which was modified into a "killing machine," prosecutors said.

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