Sniper's defense team see glimpses of humanity in man

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 10, 2009; A01

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."

The legal team also defended the only inmate executed in the Old Dominion this year. Sheldon and Connell were there in February when Edward Bell, who fatally shot Winchester police Sgt. Ricky L. Timbrook in 1999, died. It was the first time either lawyer had been witness to an execution.

"Whatever he did or didn't do, we knew him. He was a friend," Connell said. "I miss him terribly."

Awaiting word from Kaine

Muhammad's attorneys argue that their client should be spared because he suffers from severe mental illness and brain damage, caused partly by childhood beatings. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene Monday. Now, only Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) can halt the scheduled 9 p.m. execution.

Muhammad, 48, and co-conspirator Lee Boyd Malvo, now 24, crisscrossed the Washington region during three weeks in October 2002, shooting people who were going about the mundane tasks of daily life. Muhammad was convicted and sentenced to death in the slaying of Dean H. Meyers, 53, who was gunned down Oct. 9, 2002, at a gas station near Manassas. Malvo was convicted in a separate trial and is serving a life sentence.

Sheldon said that in this case, and others, he reads about the victims of the crime. "The harm has been done to them, and it is a terrible harm," he said.

The attorneys said they have come to know Muhammad as someone who can be lucid one moment and delusional the next. Even now, they said, Muhammad claims that he is innocent and that there was a plot to frame him because he is black. He recently told his attorneys that he was having dental work done in Germany when one of the killings occurred.

"One thing people forget is that we don't see people in a terrible crisis," Connell said. "Whatever led Muhammad or Powell to do what they did, we don't see that. We seem them locked in a jail where they have no communication with the outside world."

"We talk about their cases, sure. But we also talk about sports. We talk about the magazines they read. We talk about what they had to eat," he added.

David Bruck, director of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse at Washington and Lee Law School, said Sheldon and Connell have mastered a highly technical area of the law that few choose to enter.

But representing a death row client goes far beyond legal battles. "You then have to deal with the public rage and outcry against your client and the thirst for retribution," Bruck said. "Jay and Jon are both members of a very honorable band of attorneys who are willing to do that."

Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert, who prosecuted Muhammad, said he respects the defense lawyers' work, even though he disagrees with their legal arguments. "They cross every 't' and dot every 'i,' " Ebert said. "They raise plenty of issues, most of which have no merit."

Sheldon said he turns to his wife and three children, ages 3, 6, and 8, when he needs to escape. Connell goes home to his 8-year-old son, whom he and his wife adopted from Thailand.

But tonight, both lawyers will be at Virginia's death house.

"You don't want your client to be alone," Sheldon said.

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