Washington sniper sentenced to death by unanimous jury

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The Independent US

A Virginia jury recommended the death penalty yesterday for John Allen Muhammad, the man convicted of being the leader of the two snipers who terrorised the Washington area in the autumn of last year.

Outwardly as emotionless and stonefaced as he was throughout the trial at which he was convicted last week, the 42-year-old Muhammad listened as the unanimous decision was read out in the Virginia Beach court.

Although the trial was for only one of the 10 shooting deaths in Washington DC,Virginia and Maryland - that of a driver killed at a petrol station on 9 October - the jury called for the death penalty on both grounds sought by the prosecution: that the crime was one of multiple murders committed within a three-year period, and that it was part of a terrorist conspiracy.

The judge can reduce the sentence to life in prison without parole at the formal sentencing hearing, set for 12 February; but such leniency is rare in Virginia, especially in a high-profile case where the evidence, by common consent, was overwhelming.

"Certain cases deserve the death penalty," Paul Ebert, the state's prosecutor declared afterwards, "and this was one of them. Rarely has this much evidence and this much cohesion been put before a jury. There was no doubt Mr Muhammad committed these atrocious acts, and no doubt he had plans for other crimes."

Even so, the precise motives for the killing spree of Muhammad and his young partner, Lee Boyd Malvo, remain obscure. "Probably he had multiple motives," Mr Ebert said, insisting that Muhammad was "the worst of the worst". Lawyers for the 1991 Gulf War veteran have yet to announce whether they will appeal, but experts believe he will indeed be executed.

Virginia, with Florida, is second only to Texas in its application of capital punishment. The average interval between sentencing and execution is about seven years in Virginia, among the shortest for American states.

In opting for the death penalty, the jury refused to be swayed by arguments put forward by the defence highlighting Muhammad's loving relationship with his children.

That consideration had been very important, Heather Best-Teague, one of the jurors, said afterwards. "But you have to overcome that feeling when you're making the decision you feel is right."

The outcome is a victory for John Ashcroft, the Attorney General, who is a vehement advocate of the death penalty. Mr Ashcroft had ordered the case to be tried in Virginia, even though most of the killings had been in neighbouring Maryland, which rarely executes killers.

Mr Malvo's separate trial is in progress in Chesapeake, another Virginia town. Although he was only 17 when the crimes were committed, Virginia has not previously flinched from putting juveniles to death. Mr Malvo, moreover, confessed to police that it was he who actually pulled the trigger in most, if not all, of the murders.

The judge in his trial has ruled that the jurors will be permitted to hear the full set of five recorded interviews with police in which the teenager brags about his marksmanship.

In the recordings, Mr Malvo admits firing the shots in the murders. But in a convoluted, at times contradictory version of the plot, he also refers to Muhammad as his "father". His lawyers claim he was not responsible for his actions because he had been brainwashed by Muhammad, who is 25 years his senior.