David G. Savage

Seven years ago this month, the captured Beltway snipers -- John Allen Muhammad, then 41, and his accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, 17 -- were in federal custody, accused of 16 shootings and 10 murders. They had set out to create a reign of terror in the Washington area to match the 9/11 attacks of the year before.

U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft had a choice: He could send them to be tried in Maryland, where most of the murders took place but where the death penalty was on hold because of the specter of racial unfairness. Or he could send them across the Potomac River to Virginia, the site of three of the killings, where death sentences are carried out swiftly.

Ashcroft chose Virginia.

On Tuesday, Muhammad is scheduled to die by lethal injection in a Virginia prison, his initial appeals having been dismissed by state and federal judges.


“History has borne out the attorney general made the right call,” said Mark Corallo, who was Ashcroft’s spokesman. “These crimes were so brutally coldblooded and calculated.”

Muhammad’s new lawyers lodged a last set of emergency appeals with the Supreme Court last week. Their main claim is that the case has moved too quickly. They said judges in Virginia cut short the time for filing appeals and refused to hold a single hearing after the trial.

Jonathan Sheldon, Muhammad’s current lawyer, describes his client as mentally ill.

“He is delusional, paranoid and incompetent. He was angry at the government after he came back from the Gulf War. And he has delusions of racist conspiracies,” Sheldon said.

He faults Muhammad’s trial lawyers for having described him as a “very bright man” to the jury, and for not recounting his mental problems.

Sheldon said Muhammad called him a few days ago to say he should find Muhammad’s dentist to confirm that he was not in Washington at the time of the crimes.

“He’s in Nuremberg,” Muhammad said, according to his lawyer’s account. “In Germany?” the lawyer asked.

“It’s a week before his execution, and he thinks we should be looking for a dentist in Germany,” Sheldon said.


Meanwhile, prosecutors and families of the victims have said they are comforted that Muhammad is facing the death penalty and that an execution is on schedule.

Maryland Atty. Gen. Douglas F. Gansler agrees, though he objected to Ashcroft’s 2002 decision to move the case.

“It has worked out for the better. If you are going to have a death penalty, John Muhammad -- just like Tim McVeigh -- is the poster boy for the death penalty,” said Gansler, referring to the Oklahoma City bomber who was executed in 2001. At the time of the Washington shootings, Gansler was chief prosecutor in Montgomery County, Md., where six of the murders occurred.

Besides the 10 killings in the Washington area, Muhammad and Malvo were believed to have killed at least seven others in their cross-country shooting spree.


It began on Sept. 5, 2002, when a restaurant owner in Clinton, Md., was shot six times as he left his establishment. He survived, but a young thief, apparently Malvo, stole $3,500 in cash from him. Ten days later, the owner of a nearby liquor store was shot and robbed.

It was not until Oct. 3 that the shootings gripped the Washington area. At 8:15 a.m., a taxi driver was fatally shot while fueling his car. Fifteen minutes later, a woman was fatally shot in the head while sitting on a bench outside a restaurant. Less than two hours later, another woman was fatally shot as she stood next to her car. And that evening, a man was shot on a street in northwest Washington.

The shootings continued throughout the month. The FBI eventually used fingerprints on ransom notes to trace Muhammad and Malvo back to Washington state, where their shooting spree had begun. The bureau posted a public alert for the old Chevy Caprice the two were driving. And they were arrested while asleep at a rest stop along a highway in Maryland on Oct. 24, 2002. The killing spree was over.

Malvo was convicted of the murders, but because of his young age, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.