Death Beckons John Muhammad

John Muhammad sniper trial CBS/AP

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.

The first sniper verdicts mean many different things to many different people. To many, they mean justice. To some, they mean closure. To others, they represent a big "so what." To most, they are about the least surprising high-profile verdicts to come along in quite some time. Prosecutors, after all, put on a thorough and relentless case against John Allen Muhammad.

To me, the four, fast guilty verdicts against the older of the two sniper suspects mean that his jurors already have unanimously concluded that he played a critical role in last fall's deadly attacks. And that, in turn, means to me that Muhammad almost certainly will be given a death penalty at the completion of the sentencing hearing that already is under way. Only a rogue juror can stop that result now.

After these verdicts, how can a Muhammad juror now turn around and argue with a straight face that the defendant deserves leniency because he did not actually shoot the victim in this case? If that tiny little detail about the case were an important consideration to this jury - and it probably should have been - you would have thought it would have taken the jury more than six hours or so to decide a case that had taken weeks to present to them.

I suppose it's possible that jurors might believe that Muhammad's relatively minor role in the death of Dean Meyers wasn't relevant to his degree of culpability but might be relevant to his punishment. That's certainly the distinction that Muhammad's attorneys are hoping that jurors draw when they go back into the jury room later this week for Round Two of their deliberations. But nothing that has happened so far in the case suggests that the defense has any reason to be optimistic about such a result.

In fact, the opposite is true. Against that rather technical distinction the defense hopes to flesh out, you have all of the victims of the sniper shootings and all of their friends and family members. You have all of the survivors of the attacks and all of the eyewitnesses who place Muhammad with Lee Malvo and then place both at the scene of a crime. You have those sad taped 9-11 calls. You have all of the loss and tragedy of a mass murder. If you thought the guilt-innocence phase of the trial was emotional, wait until you get a load of the penalty phase.

Right now, just as the sentencing-phase parade of tears begins, there is every reason to think that jurors already are focusing more upon the enormity of the sniper crimes than upon Muhammad's specific role in the Meyers shooting. Right now, there is every reason to think that the jury is ready and willing to punish Muhammad, not just for the Meyers shooting, but for all of the sniper shootings that prosecutors linked him to during the course of the trial. There is nothing illegal or improper about this -- Virginia law permits it.

Meanwhile, Muhammad does not have youth as an excuse. His lawyers cannot argue that he was brainwashed by Malvo. Nor can they present much of a defense based upon his mental state at the time of the shootings. The judge has precluded them from relying upon any mental health experts because Muhammad refused to be examined by a prosecution expert. Instead, the jury almost surely will hear from Muhammad's friends and family about his difficult early life, which reportedly included no small degree of physical abuse.

Will this give us a perspective on Muhammad that is different from the one we have now? Absolutely. Will it be enough to spare Muhammad from a recommendation of death? I'm betting not. The jury thinks that Muhammad and Malvo were co-equal murderers last fall. It's hard to believe that jurors are going to vote for anything short of the ultimate punishment for a man they think is fully responsible for a heinous series of crimes. Muhammad's lawyers knew going in that this trial would be less about guilt and more about punishment. The jury is soon likely to tell them that, in this case anyway, you cannot separate the two.

By Andrew Cohen
  • Andrew Cohen

Comments