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Muhammad is executed for sniper killing

By Josh White and Maria Glod
Wednesday, November 11, 2009; A01

JARRATT, Va. -- John Allen Muhammad, the sniper who kept the Washington region paralyzed by fear for three weeks as he and a young accomplice gunned down people at random, was executed Tuesday night by lethal injection.

Muhammad, a man who directed what many law enforcement officials consider one of the worst outbursts of crime in the nation's history, died in Virginia's death chamber while relatives of his victims looked on.

Unlike his victims, Muhammad knew when and how he was going to die. He and Jamaican immigrant Lee Boyd Malvo, then 17, killed 10 people in the Washington area during a terrifying rampage in October 2002; they also have been linked to shootings in several other states.

Virginia authorities escorted Muhammad, in denim and flip-flops, into a small room at the Greensville Correctional Center and strapped him to a cross-shaped table. He was then injected with a series of lethal drugs beginning at 9:06 p.m. and he was pronounced dead at 9:11 p.m. Although he maintained his innocence to the very end, Muhammad, 48, ignored a request to make a final statement.

Larry Traylor, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, said Tuesday night that Muhammad requested a last meal but asked that details not be made public. Muhammad also declined to meet with a spiritual adviser, but he did spend time with immediate family members in his last few hours.

Muhammad showed no emotion in the death chamber. When the curtain opened, his head was tilted to the right, and his eyes were closed. Asked whether he wanted to say anything, he did not respond.

"It's over. The whole long, sad process has ended," said Bob Meyers, whose brother, Dean H. Meyers, 53, was gunned down Oct. 9 at a Prince William County gas station. "There are no winners here. We are not celebrating. It was a sad day for everyone."

Bob Meyers and his wife, Lori, witnessed the execution along with about 20 other relatives of victims. He said the mood was somber as they watched Muhammad's final breaths.

"There is a certain bit of closure, but you never get full closure," Meyers said. "I think it was justice."

Muhammad's attorney, Jon Sheldon, who met with the sniper Tuesday and also witnessed the execution, said Muhammad did not want to take part in the rituals of the death penalty. "He had no interest in those things," Sheldon said, explaining why Muhammad did not speak and declined to make public his final meal.

Sheldon said Muhammad visited with one of his sons and remained convinced that the prosecution was a racist plot against him. But the lawyers steered conversation to other topics.

Using a single .223-caliber sniper rifle and a modified Chevrolet sedan that authorities have called "a killing machine," Muhammad and Malvo injected fear into the mundane tasks their victims were performing as they were hit: pumping gas, shopping, walking to school, mowing lawns, going to a restaurant. Malvo is serving a life sentence without parole.

The killings began with no explanation. Then the snipers left cryptic notes and phone messages demanding $10 million, just as millions of Washington area residents were distracted by white vans and other mistaken clues that authorities were chasing.

The shootings led Washingtonians to change their daily rhythms. People zigzagged through parking lots and instructed their children to duck down in cars while at gas stations. Schools canceled outdoor recess and football games. The shootings were so frightening because they were so random.

In the end, Muhammad and Malvo were tracked down because of a fingerprint left at an Alabama shooting referred to in one of the notes the snipers left behind. Investigators put that together with Muhammad's purchase of the dark blue Chevy in New Jersey, a stolen Bushmaster rifle from Washington state, and an alert truck driver who noticed the Caprice at a highway rest stop in Maryland.

Despite scores of witnesses and hundreds of pieces of evidence -- the sum of which pointed directly at Muhammad and Malvo and led to capital murder convictions -- law enforcement officials have not pinned down a solid motive for the shootings and cannot say for sure who specifically fired the fatal shots.

Muhammad's ex-wife, who lived with his children in the Maryland suburbs, where many of the shootings occurred, has speculated that he did it to frighten or even kill her.

Prosecutors relied on untested Virginia terrorism laws that allowed them to seek convictions even if they couldn't prove which of the two suspects fired the gun.

In the 2003 trial in Virginia Beach, Muhammad represented himself for the first two days, making rambling but cogent points about the fact that no one saw him shoot a single bullet. His attorneys later took over, but jurors ultimately convicted him and sentenced him to death.

Muhammad was put to death for a single killing: the Oct. 9, 2002, sniper slaying of Dean H. Meyers of Gaithersburg, who was shot shortly after 8 p.m. while he pumped gas into his Mazda at a Sunoco station outside Manassas.

Federal authorities, who could have allowed Muhammad to be tried in any of the jurisdictions that saw a sniper slaying, chose the Meyers case because Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert had a stellar record in capital cases -- he had sent a dozen people to Virginia's death row -- and Virginia was known for its speedy appeals process.

The decision paid off. Just six years after Muhammad's conviction, he was put to death, having exhausted every legal option. The U.S. Supreme Court denied his final request for a stay Monday, and Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) rejected his clemency request Tuesday.

Ebert, who had never witnessed an execution before Tuesday night, chose to go to Muhammad's.

Rick Conway, one of the Prince William prosecutors who secured the conviction against Muhammad and one of the witnesses to his execution, said it was a "great relief" to see Muhammad die after all the efforts to catch him, try him and punish him.

"Justice has been served," Conway said. "There is definitely a feeling of finality to this. . . . John Allen Muhammad cannot victimize anyone else."

Muhammad's appellate attorneys had long argued that their client was mentally ill and that he was incompetent to represent himself and perhaps even to stand trial. They decried Virginia's haste in executing him.

After Muhammad was dead, Sheldon read a statement from him and Muhammad's family. "We deeply sympathize with the families and loved ones who have to relive the pain and loss of those terrible days," he said. "To all those families and the countless citizens across the country who bore witness, and continue to do so, to those tragic events, we renew our condolences and offer our prayers for a better future."

Sheldon also expressed condolences to Muhammad's family, saying that "with humility and self-consciousness, today [they] lost a father and member of their family."

But Nelson Rivera, whose wife, Lori Lewis Rivera, was shot at a Montgomery County gas station as she vacuumed her boss's car, had a different view.

"I'm happy he's dead," Rivera said. "This is not going to bring Lori back, but I don't have to think about him anymore. I can breathe better."

Staff writer Clarence Williams in Washington contributed to this report.

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