By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009 7:04 PM
A federal appellate court on Friday rejected sniper John Allen Muhammad's appeal of his conviction and death sentence, leaving him with few options to avoid execution for the wave of shootings that terrified the Washington region in 2002.
The Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit affirmed a lower court's denial of Muhammad's latest appeal. His attorneys had made a number of arguments, including that he should not have been allowed to represent himself at the start of his trial and that prosecutors failed to turn over key documents to the defense.
"After a full review of the record and Muhammad's claims, we conclude that we must affirm the decision of the district court," Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote for a three-judge panel, joined by judges Diana Gribbon Motz and Allyson K. Duncan.
Muhammad was convicted in Virginia Beach in 2003 and sentenced to death for killing Dean H. Meyers near Manassas in October 2002, one of 10 sniper slayings that month. His accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, was sentenced to life in prison without parole in a separate trial.
A variety of state and federal courts had rejected Muhammad's appeals, and his only options after the 4th Circuit are to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to stop his execution or file a clemency petition with Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).
James G. Connell III, an attorney for Muhammad, said Friday that he will first ask the full 4th Circuit to review the panel decision, which the judges rarely agree to do. He said the defense plans to ask the judges to reconsider whether a lower court violated Muhammad's rights by barring a defense psychologist from testifying about his traumatic childhood during the death penalty phase of the case.
Virginia Attorney General William C. Mims said that he was "pleased" with the decision and that Muhammad's shootings had been "horrific."
During oral arguments in May, the 4th Circuit judges focused on the defense's argument that Muhammad deserved a new trial because his attorneys should have told the judge that there was evidence he was mentally incompetent to represent himself. Muhammad's self-representation ended after two days of testimony.
The judges rejected that argument Friday, but they chided Virginia prosecutors for not giving Muhammad's Virginia attorneys evidence including 30,000 pages of documents that were later turned over to his attorneys in Maryland, where he was found guilty in 2006 of six more slayings. Among the documents were witness statements giving conflicting accounts about the killing of Pascal Charlot in the District on Oct. 3, 2002.
"Let it be clear that we by no means condone the actions of the Commonwealth in this case," the court said. "While not admirable, the Commonwealth's actions did not violate the Constitution."