Muhammad: 'Dead Man Walking'

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio at a First Amendment forum sponsored by Arizona State University's journalism school, November 30, 2009. KPHO

In the end, John Allen Muhammad was punished as much for the enormity of last fall's D.C.-area sniper crimes as for his role in them. After a strong circumstantial case presented by prosecutors, and after Muhammad sabotaged his own mental health defense, jurors were unable or unwilling to separate the defendant's relatively tame role in the deadly attacks from the cruel and relentless nature of the serial shootings themselves. You might say, as jurors did twice with their verdicts, that Muhammad is a bad man now convicted and condemned for playing an important role in an even worse crime.

As a result, although he did not fire the shot that killed Dean Meyers, the principal victim in this case, Muhammad will almost certainly be executed in Virginia sometime around the end of this decade. Prince William County Circuit Judge Leroy F. Millette Jr. will assuredly accept the jury's recommendation of death and, even though the defense has a few decent issues to raise on appeal, it's virtually inconceivable that Virginia's appellate judges, or the federal courts, are going to find reversible error that would vacate these verdicts. Even if Muhammad never again is tried for a sniper crime, he is today pretty much a dead man walking.

This entirely predictable result says almost as much about Virginia law as it says about the defendant or his jurors. It says that in Virginia, you don't have to be the real "triggerman" in a murder to be punished as one. And it says that in Virginia you can be deemed "a terrorist" as culpable as Osama bin Laden himself if you scare the population in an attempt to extort a few million bucks. Somewhere, I bet, the drafter of Virginia's nascent anti-terrorism law is laughing at the way it was immediately extended to cover these two common criminals, Muhammad and his younger cohort, Lee Malvo.

This isn't a verdict that ought to be open to second-guessing. If it wasn't clear before, it is perfectly clear now that Muhammad partnered with Lee Malvo in the sniper crimes. Prosecutors had plenty of evidence linking Muhammad to Malvo and then linking both to the sniper shootings. And if Muhammad wasn't the actual shooter, he clearly was indispensable to the operation. There is no way that Malvo could have done what he did without Muhammad there every bloody step along the way to help him out. Once the jurors latched onto that logic, and prosecutors made sure that they did, Muhammad was doomed.

Meanwhile, Muhammad never was willing or able to help himself during trial. He refused to be examined by a prosecution expert so his lawyers were precluded from presenting their own expert testimony about the state of his mental health. If Muhammad truly suffers from Gulf War Syndrome, and if somehow that illness is to blame for his murderous instincts, we will probably never know. Nor will we ever really know whether this result might have been different had Muhammad left the lawyering to his lawyers from the start. Did the jury get ticked off when Muhammad made his own opening statement and told jurors that only he "knew" the real story behind the sniper crimes? Did jurors tune out the defense from that zany moment on?

But if Muhammad's guilt is clear, it is equally obvious that the deck was stacked against him from the moment U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft personally steered the sniper cases to Virginia. Sorry, Marylanders, but you folks apparently just aren't tough enough on crime. Another ominous sign was the moment Muhammad's trial judge declared -- even before jury deliberations -- that there was enough evidence to convict the defendant. Hey, just because a defendant is guilty doesn't mean that he can't also be railroaded, right?

Right. Muhammad was railroaded by the choice of venue, selected precisely in the hope that this result would occur. He was railroaded by the choice of charges -- if he is a terrorist, than every serial murderer is a terrorist. And he was railroaded when federal authorities had him transferred last fall into state custody without prior notice either to his judge or to his defense attorneys. Unfortunately for prosecutors, Muhammad did not immediately start squealing to his new captors after a day without food like Malvo did. But you can't blame them for trying.

This isn't an unjust result. You can't be intimately involved in killing at least 10 people and not pay a high price for your crimes. And it's not like Muhammad showed any remorse or regret when confronted with the reality of his conduct. But there is something unseemly -- something even a little slimy -- about the way the government in many of its forms conspired to generate today's decision. You could say, as some have, that anyone who kills in about seven different jurisdictions spanning several states deserves to be "forum-shopped" for trial. Or you could say, as some have, that the system treated Muhammad worse than it would have a run-of-the-mill murderer because the sniper murders themselves were extraordinary. I guess it all depends upon your perspective -- and perhaps upon your proximity to the sniper dragnet last fall.

Which brings us to Malvo. If a jury could come back with a death verdict against Muhammad without proof that he shot his victim or a confession, what should we expect from Malvo's jurors, faced with proof of his attack on Linda Franklin and his own creepy confession about it? Can you imagine the uproar if Malvo, the shooter, is spared a death sentence -- because of his youth, because the jury believes that Muhammad controlled him, whatever -- while Muhammad, the spotter, stalks death row? If the Muhammad case in the end generated no great suspense or surprise, the Malvo case promises at least the former and perhaps the latter as well.
  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.

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