Too Much Pain, Not Much Point in Sniper Trial

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

This trial, the prosecutors keep saying, is for the victims and their families. There is talk of gaining "closure," as if that were possible. There is much said about letting those whose lives were ravaged by the snipers see John Muhammad held responsible for every one of his shootings in those terrifying days of the fall of 2002.

But what's happening in Courtroom 1 in the Montgomery County Judicial Center in Rockville is quite the opposite of a satisfying scene of an amoral killer being held to account. With Muhammad -- already convicted and waiting to be executed in Virginia -- representing himself, relatives of victims find themselves in the witness box having to be deferential to the raving nut they know killed their loved ones.

What is the point of making family members entertain this madman's insulting questions?

The families sit together in the visitors' gallery, some crying, many wearing faces of sad exhaustion as they listen to witnesses re-create those moments of random violence. Then, each time Muhammad rises to cross-examine a witness, there is a collective shortening of breath. Backs stiffen. Eyes narrow.

In the witness box, even professionals such as police and rescue workers turn their bodies toward the jury so as not to look at the killer pretending to be an honest advocate. Muhammad, his syntax confused, his questions rambling, speaks of "the shooting, uh, the alleged shooting," and peddles the fiction that one murder might have been a lawn mower accident. And everyone in the room has to be polite and act as if the defense lawyer is a rational human being with a soul.

The justice system is not a private retribution service. As prosecutors and courts have added all manner of assistance for victims and their families over the past generation, we have lost sight of the fact that the courts exist to protect the entire community, not to deliver the vengeance a victim's relatives may crave. (The venue for personal claims is the civil court, which relatives of several victims used to sue the maker of the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle used in the shootings, as well as the Tacoma, Wash., store from which it was stolen. The families won a $2.5 million settlement in that case.)

Yes, victims' loved ones want to see justice done; they should expect that the system will capture and punish the shooters. But the primary interest must always be the community at large, and in this case, a Virginia jury has already assured that Muhammad and Lee Malvo will never again roam the streets.

Only time can heal the remaining wounds. The Shell station in Kensington where the snipers burst into our lives will always be the sniper station, just as the hotel where President Reagan was shot will always be known as the Hinckley Hilton.

Today, a drive by that gas station no longer produces an involuntary flinch. As I fill my tank, I imagine the sniper's view of the customers, and my mind wanders to where my children were that bright fall morning. But then the gas pump clicks off, and I'm back in the present, and the snipers are locked up, and we're onto life's newer nightmares.

Of course, those whose families were devastated by the snipers don't have it so easy. The violence visited upon them will be part of the identity of children and grandchildren to come, and nothing the state can do to Muhammad and Malvo will ever make up for that.

The trial in Rockville will not result in longer or harsher punishment for those two. Montgomery State's Attorney Doug Gansler's argument that this trial serves as insurance in case the Virginia convictions were ever overturned is offset by Prince William County prosecutor Paul Ebert's worry that testimony in the Maryland trial could give the snipers' defense new grounds for an appeal back on the other side of the river.

The rest is money and politics. The trial will cost more than $1 million. The sheriff's office alone will spend at least $500,000 in overtime and other costs, deploying at least 15 deputies a day to secure the trial, Chief Deputy Darren Popkin says. "We've spent $250,000 so far in salaries and security improvements for the courthouse," Popkin says.

Deputies guard the entrance and in the back and front of the room; additional officers surround Muhammad, moving to block every path of escape each time he stands to ask questions.

Click on and you get the message, "Website coming soon." Gansler is expected to announce his run for state attorney general next week. A rising star in Maryland politics who takes pride in running his office in an "extremely fiscally conservative manner," he didn't need this trial to make his case. The families don't need it to know that Muhammad will be held accountable.

And the public doesn't need it: In the case of the snipers, justice has already done all it can.

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