Sniper's defense team see glimpses of humanity in man

Local residents recall the terror of the Beltway sniper attacks at Seven Corners Shopping Center in Fairfax County, Va., where Linda Franklin, 47, was shot and killed in the Home Depot parking garage. Artifacts courtesy of the Newseum.
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

If attorney Jon Sheldon's final plea to save the life of John Allen Muhammad fails, he will go to Virginia's death chamber Tuesday night to watch the sniper die.

Most of those who will gather at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt readily see the execution as just punishment for the man who masterminded a wave of random shootings that left 10 people dead and terrorized the Washington region for more than three weeks in October 2002. The father of one victim says he would gladly kill Muhammad with his own hands. The prosecutor who sent Muhammad to death row said he plans to watch the lethal injection.

Then there's Sheldon and co-counsel James G. Connell III, who have been working tirelessly to save Muhammad's life.

They condemn the man's crimes. But during the past three years, they have spent hours talking with him -- in person and by phone -- and they have come to see some humanity in the man many see only as a monster.

"I perfectly understand the families of the victims want to throttle him. It is hard to get a handle on the amount of damage he has done," Sheldon said. "John Allen Muhammad is absolutely responsible. He's guilty. But there are glimpses of him being thoughtful. People don't want to see that. It's much easier to wrap him up into the thing he did."

Sheldon, who is also president of the board for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said he thinks executions "erode" society. "It's not about him; it's about us," he said. "When we see hatred and violence, what should our response be?"

Four death row clients

Sheldon and Connell, who met at the College of William and Mary law school in the early 1990s, are part of a small Fairfax City law firm that has taken the cases of some of Virginia's most reprehensible criminals. Between them, they represent four murderers facing execution -- one-quarter of the state's death row. In one of those cases, they recently won a reprieve for Paul Warner Powell, who fatally stabbed a 16-year-old Prince William County girl and raped her younger sister.

Sheldon's interest in capital cases started in 1994 when as a law student he took a summer internship at the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center. It wasn't a noble motive that led him there -- he just thought the work would be interesting. But, ultimately, he saw real people on death row.

Once, he smuggled a turtle out of prison and mailed it to an inmate's daughter. And he still has a sculpture of a leopard that one of the prisoners made him from bits of plastic forks.

"You are interacting with these 40 death row inmates," Sheldon said. "Some of them were lifting weights. Some of them were playing chess. I found it fascinating to talk to these guys."

Stephen A. Northup, a Richmond lawyer who has worked with Sheldon and Connell on one of those death row cases, said few lawyers would devote hours and hours to representing a client such as Muhammad.

"It was such a notorious case that really did have the people in the D.C. area and central Virginia in its grips," Northup said. "Everyone was scared. I was scared. I looked over my shoulder at the gas station. This is defense of a client who is held in utter ignominy by the public."

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