A Life Worth Sparing?

Convicted sniperJohn Allen Muhammad gestures to his attorneys as he heads for the detention area after court procedings in Virginia Beach Circuit Court in Virginia Beach, Va., Wednesday Nov. 19, 2003. The defense will resume it's case in the penalty phase of the trial on Thursday. AP

Defense witnesses are back on the stand in the penalty phase of the trial of John Allen Muhammad.

The witnesses are describing the convicted sniper as a devoted and caring father. One neighbor in Washington state called Muhammad a "decent individual" whose life "took a bad turn."

Still, under cross-examination, another witness also acknowledged that when he heard reports of the sniper shootings, he got "cold chills."

Defense attorneys are hoping jurors will be convinced that Muhammad's life once had value and should be spared.

Jurors could begin considering that life-or-death question as early as Thursday. But the judge has ruled the jury won't be allowed to consider whether sniper victims suffered from psychological torture as it weighs whether to impose the death penalty.

Virginia law allows a jury to impose a death penalty only if it finds at least one of two "aggravating factors": whether Muhammad would present a future danger or whether his crimes showed "vileness."

The law defines vileness as torture, aggravated battery or depravity of mind.

Prosecutors argued Thursday that the jury should be able to consider whether last year's sniper spree constituted a form of psychological torture, saying people were "faced with considering pending death" every time they left their homes during the three-week spree last fall.

But Circuit Judge LeRoy Millette Junior agreed with defense lawyers who said there was no evidence of torture.

Prosecutors wrapped up their case Wednesday in the sentencing hearing. Muhammad was convicted on two capital murder charges Monday following a five-week trial.

Two sides of Muhammad are on display as a jury weighs whether he should die or spend life in prison for masterminding the Washington-area sniper shootings and the murder of Dean Meyers on Oct. 9, 2002 in Manassas.

A weeping former lover called him a gentle and generous man who doted on his children. A frightened ex-wife says he was a menace who repeatedly threatened to kill her as they fought over custody of the children.

Muhammad's alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, also is on trial in nearby Chesapeake on capital murder charges.

Mildred Muhammad testified Wednesday that her ex-husband said he would kill her as their marriage dissolved and the two fought over custody of their three children.

She said Muhammad told her in early 2000 that she was his "enemy" and that "as my enemy I will kill you."

Mildred Muhammad said she lived in fear of him, changing her phone number frequently and fleeing from him at a custody hearing on Sept. 4, 2001 in Tacoma, Washington, as he walked toward her in a hallway. She said she took her children her sister's house across the country to escape him.

"He always says he is going to destroy my life," she said.

The stoic veneer Muhammad has maintained during his trial softened somewhat Wednesday afternoon when defense witnesses took the stand. He even laughed during lighthearted testimony from an 82-year-old man who had hired him as a day laborer.

He smiled weakly at Mary Marez as she took the stand to tell of their love affair in the late 1990s. The two met when Muhammad, a one-time auto mechanic, did work on her car in 1995. They later became intimate, but she did not know he was still married at the time.

Marez said Muhammad doted on his children, who suffered deeply when he lost them to his ex-wife.

Marez said the two of them cooked together, worked out at the gym, and played games. His life still has value, she said under questioning from defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro.

"John is a very considerate person, the strongest, most generous person I have ever known," she said, weeping periodically.

In Chesapeake, prosecutors in Malvo's trial focused Wednesday on several of the sniper attacks, including two fatalities, and showed jurors grisly crime scene photos.

Malvo's trial resumed Thursday with a request from the prosecution.

Prosecutor Raymond Morrogh asked the judge whether witness Iran Brown could sit in a chair across from the prosecution table when he testifies later in the day. The witness stand is across from the defense table, where Malvo is seated.

Brown was 13 when he was shot at his Maryland middle school during the sniper spree last fall.

Circuit Judge Jane Marum Roush agreed and asked that Brown be fitted with a wireless microphone so jurors could hear him.

In all, the two men were accused of shooting 19 people — killing 13 and wounding six — in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Malvo's attorneys don't dispute that he took part in the attacks, but they contend he was brainwashed by Muhammad and is innocent by reason of insanity.
  • Lloyd Vries

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