Prosecutors seek death penalty for sniper suspect

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The Independent US

Prosecutors are due to present their opening arguments today in the trial of John Allen Muhammad, one of two men charged with carrying out the series of sniper murders which terrorised the Washington region last autumn.

Though 10 people died in 13 separate shootings, the trial in Virginia Beach will focus on just one of them - the killing of Dean Meyersas he was filling up his car at a petrol station in Manassas, which is about 30 miles west of the capital, on the evening of 9 October 2002.

The prosecution's case is expected to be based on strong circumstantial evidence, most notably a rifle found in the car used by Mr Muhammad, 42, and his alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, and said to have fired the bullets that killed Mr Meyers and several other sniper-case victims.

The case against the two suspects appears to be so powerful that many legal experts believe that the defence will concentrate less on proving them innocent than in avoiding the death penalty. Even though most of the murders took place in Maryland, Virginia was chosen as the trial site because it is far easier to secure a capital conviction there.

As if in recognition of this, lawyers for Mr Malvo - who was only 17 when the crimes took place - are planning a defence of insanity, arguing that he had fallen completely under the sway of Mr Muhammad, who is said to be the organiser and instigator, if not always the executor, of the shootings.

But the state will claim that the two acted as a team. To secure the death penalty, prosecutors will rely on two capital punishment statutes under Virginia law. The first automatically makes the premeditated murder of more than one person during a three-year period a capital crime.

The other, Virginia's so-called "anti-terrorism" law, says that acts of terrorism intended to frighten citizens or influence the government are also liable for the death penalty. To support this claim, they allege that Mr Muhammad said that the killings would stop if the government paid him a total of $10m (£6m).

This circumvents Virginia's "triggerman" requirement, that a defendant be proved to be the direct perpetrator of a killing to be sentenced to death.

The prosecution is likely to find it difficult to prove which of the two suspects fired the rifle shots in the sniper attacks.