Muhammad Convicted in Sniper Slayings

Times Staff Writers

A jury on Monday convicted John Allen Muhammad of murder in the serial sniper slayings that targeted innocent victims and spread panic last year across the Washington, D.C., area. The jury of seven women and five men immediately turned to Muhammad's fate, deciding whether he should be put to death.

Deliberating less than seven hours after an exhaustive five-week trial, the jurors found Muhammad guilty on two counts that could carry the death penalty in Virginia.

One was for committing multiple murders over a three-year period, and the second was for killing Dean H. Meyers, a Maryland civil engineer, during an act of terrorism. Though Muhammad was specifically found guilty of Meyers' murder, he was also convicted under a special Virginia statute that allowed prosecutors to bring in evidence of other killings to qualify the crime for the death penalty.

Muhammad, 42, was linked to 11 sniper slayings and five other shootings, including the Oct. 9, 2002, death of Meyers, who was felled by a sniper blast at a Manassas, Va., gas station.

After reaching its verdict -- which included convictions on two lesser charges -- the jury reconvened to decide whether Muhammad will be executed or given life in prison. As that proceeding began, a jury in nearby Chesapeake, Va., listened to the start of testimony in the murder trial of Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, who is accused of firing many of the fatal shots during the rampage.

Muhammad radiated no emotion as the foreman read the verdict. Tie slightly askew and wearing the brown suit he had donned for much of the trial, he stood listening, hands clasped in front of him. In addition to the murder counts, Muhammad was convicted on conspiracy and felony firearms charges. Pursing his lips, the Persian Gulf War veteran then sat down with the steely countenance of a defiant prisoner of war.

The jury's decision came rapidly. Prince William County Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. had hinted Friday that he expected a swift verdict, telling jurors they could go all day -- "if you need that much time."

The prosecution had presented a sprawling circumstantial case, with 150 witnesses and the killer's battered old car and high-powered assault rifle among the 400 pieces of physical evidence.

Muhammad had acted as his own lawyer for two bewildering days at the start of the trial -- admitting in rambling remarks that he was at the scene of Meyers' shooting -- before his lawyers took over with an abbreviated defense that included only five witnesses.

Neither prosecutors nor Muhammad's defense team made any public comments after the verdict.

Only the victims' relatives seemed to feel the need to brace themselves as the jury returned. With each succeeding "guilty," the sister of slain Baton Rouge, La., beauty shop owner Hong Im Ballenger dissolved in sobs, slumping down on a bench.

"I lost my sister and I still miss her so much," Kwang Szuszka said after she left the courtroom.

Larry Meyers, one of victim Dean H. Meyers' brothers, admitted he was nervous as the jurors filed in. "For me, it was relief. There's a lot of tension that goes with not knowing," Meyers said afterward on the courthouse steps. He is expected to testify against Muhammad during the trial's sentencing phase.

As that process began, Meyers and several victims' relatives returned to hear prosecutors press their case for Muhammad's execution. Inmates convicted of capital crimes die by chemical injection in Virginia, a state outstripped only by Texas in the yearly pace of state-sponsored death sentences.

"We reserve the death penalty for the worst of the worst," Assistant Prince William County Commonwealth Atty. Richard A. Conway told jurors in opening remarks. "Folks, he still sits right in front of you without a shred of remorse."

Conway said prosecutors would link Muhammad to other crimes, including a gunfire incident at a Washington state synagogue and a murder in Tacoma, Wash. Muhammad raised a family in Washington state and tried his hand at several failing businesses there before he fled to Antigua, where he met Malvo.

Defense lawyer Jonathan Shapiro asked jurors to look behind Muhammad's silence and find "a solid, hard-working man who loved his children. John Muhammad was a human being." The attorney told of a poor Louisiana boy who had joined the Army ROTC and later served in the Persian Gulf before his life unraveled.

Either way the jury rules, Shapiro conceded, the sniper will end up "in a box of one kind or another. One is made of concrete. One is made of plywood."

For three weeks a year ago, the nation watched as snipers killed randomly and seemingly at will. In Washington, D.C., still gripped by post-Sept. 11 jitters, the serial killings brought on a new sense of dread. The simplest outdoor activities -- pumping gas, window-shopping, waiting for a bus -- for many became freighted with fear.

The terror was magnified by the cross-section of victims. In one day, the snipers killed a white landscaper, an Indian immigrant taxi driver, a Salvadoran maid, an Idaho-born nanny and a Haitian retiree. They killed a black business traveler and nearly killed a 13-year-old black middle school student. They left a $10-million ransom note, warning of more body bags: "Your children are not safe anywhere at anytime."

Muhammad and Malvo were arrested at a Maryland rest stop and turned over to federal authorities in October 2002. U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft transferred the suspects into the custody of Virginia officials, even though six sniper killings and five other shootings had been committed in Maryland. Ashcroft acknowledged he had signed off on the move to improve the chances of their executions.

For the last five weeks, the team of three northern Virginia prosecutors calibrated their massive case toward Muhammad's execution. They appealed to jurors' emotions, focusing evidence and expert testimony at the two capital murder charges.

Day after day, family members told of the last moments they spent with the victims. Shooting survivors recounted harrowing, near-death episodes, while eyewitnesses relived the blood and chaos that followed each killing.

"I waited for the shots to stop. It seemed like forever," recalled Paul LaRuffa, a Maryland restaurant owner who recovered from six gunshot wounds to stare defiantly at Muhammad from the witness stand.

The heart of the prosecution's case was its formidable cache of physical evidence. Prosecutors wielded Muhammad's .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle like a stage prop, snapping the barrel dramatically into position. They took jurors to see the Chevrolet Caprice that had been used as a rolling sniper's nest, pointing out the sawed-out hole from which the shots had been fired.

They offered up traces of Muhammad's fingerprints and DNA, a chilling tarot "Death" card, ransom notes and a stolen laptop containing mapped-out death sites that were marked with skull-and-crossbones icons.

Muhammad tried at first to defend himself. He spoke longingly of the three children he had lost to divorce, and haughtily insisted that only he, not prosecutors, knew what happened at the crime scenes.

After two days of flailing, Muhammad allowed his court-appointed lawyers to return. They followed his lead, repeatedly insisting there was no proof that Muhammad fired any shots and intimating that Malvo had taken the lead during the killings.

The Chesapeake jury on Monday heard a contrasting theory from prosecutors trying to convict the teenage suspect in another sniper killing.

Malvo is accused of gunning down FBI analyst Linda Franklin a year ago in a Home Depot parking lot in Virginia. Unlike Prince William prosecutors, who minimized the teenager's role, Fairfax County prosecutors say Malvo was a key perpetrator.

FBI agent Charles Pierce testified Monday that Malvo at first was defiant when arrested. But he said the youth later talked freely to investigators and gave a detailed admission to some of the shootings.

The defense contends Malvo was insane at the time of the attacks because he had been psychologically manipulated by Muhammad, who often pretended as if Malvo was his son.

But despite the mounting evidence from both trials, several sniper task force investigators acknowledged last week that they still did not know precisely what set Muhammad off.

"I'm not sure we'll ever really know," said Montgomery County Sgt. Roger Thomson, who testified against Muhammad. "Not every crime has a clear motive."

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Lamb reported from Virginia Beach and Braun from Washington, D.C.

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