TOPICS > Politics

D.C. Sniper Verdict

November 17, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: To hear more about the trial and verdict of John Allen Muhammad, we are joined by James Dao of the New York Times, who has been following the trial in Virginia Beach. Welcome.

JAMES DAO: Thanks for having me, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Four counts that Muhammad was found guilty on today. Explain the breadth of the verdict to us.

JAMES DAO: The jury found him guilty on two counts of capital murder. One is a count that deals with multiple murders committed over a three-year period. The second murder count is an anti-terrorism law, a new law in Virginia that makes it a capital crime to commit killing in the act of a terrorism act. He was also found guilty on a conspiracy to commit murder charge and an illegal use of firearms charge.

GWEN IFILL: But you say that multiple, he was found guilty of possibly having had a hand in multiple murders, yet he was only tried on this one murder, is that correct?

JAMES DAO: That’s correct. The way the law works is he was, they focused on one killing, that of a man named Dean Meyers who was a civil engineer who was killed in Manassas, Virginia last October. But the prosecution brought in evidence from a total of sixteen shootings, ten of them fatal, that occurred in four different states and the District of Columbia, all to show that in addition to this one primary killing, he had a hand in nine others.

GWEN IFILL: The last time we talked about this case on the program, we talked about how so much of the evidence seemed to than circumstantial that placed him there, but not necessarily the gun in his hand firing at the victim. Did it get more specific in that for the jury?

JAMES DAO: Well, it did in a sense. The first of all, the gun was a powerful piece of evidence in that it was found in Mr. Muhammad’s car when he was arrested last October. And then through ballistics tests it was shown to have fired the fatal shot in nine killings, or excuse me, ten killings.

In addition, there was a whole array of other types of physical evidence found in the car, and as well also at some of the crime scenes. He has included things like a pen barrel that was found outside a shooting scene that had what is almost certainly Mr. Muhammad’s DNA.

The car itself was considered an important piece of evidence because of the way it had been modified. The prosecutors described it as a hide, an urban hide they call it, a place where a shooter could lay down in the trunk, hidden, put a gun out the rear, and fire through a hole out the back of the trunk.

So there was actually quite a wide array of physical evidence, DNA, as well as witnesses who said they saw Mr. Muhammad, his co-defendant Lee Malvo or the car near shooting scenes.

GWEN IFILL: You were inside the courtroom today. This was not a televised trial, we have only seen still pictures of the people coming and going in the courtroom. Describe what it was like today when that verdict came down.

JAMES DAO: Well, as he has throughout the trial, Mr. Muhammad was absolutely stone-faced. He was asked to stand when the verdict was read, he’s a former NCO in the army, he stood bolt straight, as if he were at attention, hands before him, did not show any signs of emotion as the four guilty counts were read off.

On the other hand, there was quite a bit of emotion in the audience, where relatives of several victims were sitting. The sister of Hong Ballenger a woman who was killed in Baton Rouge last September, began sobbing quite loudly, and the daughter of Linda Franklin,, an FBI analyst who was killed in Falls Church last year, she also began to cry.

GWEN IFILL: The court went immediately to the penalty phase of this trial, which in this case would be deliberating whether he should be put to death or not. That started right away this afternoon?

JAMES DAO: That’s correct. It’s almost like a mini trial in and of itself. The prosecution and the defense both gave opening arguments. One of Mr. Muhammad’s lawyers, Jonathan Shapiro, gave an impassioned opening speech in which he said this is a man who has value, this is a man who we will tell you was a good father, who was a good employee, who basically led a good and decent life until something clearly snapped. And he outlined what will be a two or three-day defense case in which they will bring people forward who knew Muhammad from childhood on and can talk about him as a person, in an effort to humanize him to the jury.

The prosecution, on the other hand, will try to show the viciousness of the crimes and their lasting impact by having family relatives of Dean Meyers speak about what a terrible loss it was for them.

They also open today with presenting evidence from another killing in Tacoma, Washington early last year, which Mr. Muhammad hasn’t been convicted, hasn’t been tried on yet, but the prosecution says that he is responsible for the shooting of a young woman who was related to a friend of his former wife.

GWEN IFILL: You know, not far away from the courtroom where you were today and from Virginia Beach where you are tonight is the other trial of his alleged act place, Lee Boyd Malvo. Does today’s verdict affect that trial?

JAMES DAO: It’s very hard to say what kind of impact there will be, because theoretically at least the jury in that trial should not be listening to any news accounts so, they should be completely insulated from what’s happening here in Virginia Beach.

On the other hand, Mr. Malvo’s defense lawyers have been making a case that is very similar to the prosecution in Mr. Muhammad’s case. They contend that Mr. Muhammad was the mastermind of these shootings, that he effectively controlled and even brain washed Lee Malvo, who was only 17 when the killings took place. So to the degree that the jury here in Virginia Beach believed those arguments, conceivably if the jury in Chesapeake, which is 20 miles away, has the same sentiments, that might be helpful to Mr. Malvo.

GWEN IFILL: Jim Dao, thank you very much.

JAMES DAO: My pleasure.