By Ernesto Londoño and Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 2, 2006
As his last act in a Maryland courtroom, John Allen Muhammad chose silence.
The man convicted twice of terrorizing the Washington area with a powerful rifle and an impressionable accomplice betrayed no emotion yesterday as relatives of the people he killed spoke of their loss. He remained impassive as a judge sentenced him to six consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"You chose the wrong community, sir, to stain with your acts of violence," Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge James L. Ryan told Muhammad. "You, Mr. Muhammad, have no hope. You have no future. You'll spend the rest of your life locked in a cage."
J. Wyndal Gordon, one of Muhammad's stand-by lawyers, maintained that Muhammad -- who doggedly defended himself during the month-long trial -- is an innocent man who was not allowed to tell his side of the story.
"We came here in search for justice," Wyndal said. "We came here in the search for the truth, to find out what really happened during those 23 days in October. My humble opinion is that we fell short."
What took place in the snipers' blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice in October 2002 has never been clearer to relatives of the sniper's victims, however, because the Maryland trial included the testimony of Muhammad's accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo.
Yesterday, four of those relatives stood just a few feet from Muhammad and told him of their anger and their heartache.
"You took my son from me in the hopes that you would snatch your children," said Sonia Wills, the mother of sniper victim Conrad Johnson, referring to Muhammad's apparent plot to reclaim the children he had lost in a custody dispute. "I know we will never see Conrad again. And you are the devil's advocate. You will never see or hug your children again. It's only a shame you cannot look at us to see the people you have devastated, the lives that you have ruined."
Muhammad didn't flinch, and his eyes remained cast down.
Nelson Rivera, the husband of Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, described how much he struggled to explain to his young daughter what had happened to her mother.
"What I want to say is he not only killed my wife," Rivera said. "He killed me. He killed my daughter and all the rest of the family. You have no idea how hard it is to tell a 3 ½-year-old her mom got killed."
Ola Martin-Border, James Martin's sister, said she wishes she could have protected her "little brother" one last time.
"I was his big sister, but I wasn't there to protect him," Martin-Border said. "I would have taken that bullet myself. Gladly. But I wasn't there. I couldn't be there for him. And I couldn't even be there to comfort him."
Their voices, at intervals soft and thunderous, brought tears to the eyes of spectators in the courtroom, some intimately affected by the case.
Outside, State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, flanked by relatives of sniper victims, faced a wall of cameras to hail the sentence.
"Anyone who suggested that this trial shouldn't be brought to Montgomery County should be ashamed," he said of people who questioned the need for another trial after Muhammad had been convicted of murder in Virginia.
His deputy, Katherine Winfree, who prosecuted the case, said that although the county is no stranger to violent crimes, Muhammad is in a league of his own.
"No one has ever stood before a judge in this county with more on his conscience and more crimes to his discredit than John Allen Muhammad," Winfree said.
The trial prosecutors and a small group of sniper task force members left the courtroom sporting weary smiles. Some hugged victims' relatives, revealing bonds forged during the investigation and three trials.
"Yes, it brought them some closure," said Sgt. Roger Thomson, a Montgomery homicide investigator who played a key role in the investigation. "And, yes, it brought some closure to Montgomery County. Justice was done, and I can't wait to get them out of the state. This man -- he can't even look at these people in the face. The only thing you see in his eyes is hate."
Muhammad, 45, has been convicted in seven of the 10 October 2002 sniper slayings and is on death row in Virginia. Malvo, 21, who has been convicted of one killing in Virginia, has agreed to plead guilty to the six Maryland slayings. He is expected to return to Virginia to serve a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Muhammad and Malvo could be prosecuted in other states, including Louisiana and Alabama, where they allegedly shot people.
As Ryan announced the sentence, Muhammad began scribbling on a notepad. Gordon later said he was drafting an appeal to the sentence.
"Mr. Muhammad, on behalf of all the people in this community, I order the sheriffs to take you into their custody, remove you from this courtroom, from this county and from this state," Ryan said. "Sheriff, take this man into your custody."
As he was escorted out in handcuffs, a short but hearty round of applause spread through the room.
Before suppertime, Muhammad had been transferred to the Sussex 1 State Prison in Waverly, Va., home to all death row inmates in that state.