TOPICS > Politics

Death Penalty

November 24, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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TERENCE SMITH: The panel of seven women and five men who convicted sniper John Muhammad last Sunday recommended today that he receive the ultimate sanction: The death penalty. Following that announcement this morning, some of the jurors gave a summary of their deliberations, both private and collective, and cited the reasoning behind their decision.

JERRY HAGGERTY, Jury Foreman: I can tell you personally that I have not had a full night’s sleep since this thing started and I probably won’t for a while, and I think I can speak collectively for the jury. But as far as the amount of evidence, they had a case to present. And as I mentioned earlier to the gentleman on the left, it was the total aspect of what happened. So I think they did what they needed to do.

HEATHER BEST-TEAGUE, Juror: Everybody respected the fact that the courts had ordered us all not to speak to anybody about the case. We weren’t even allowed to talk amongst ourselves about the case, until the… we were in deliberation, and that is a very hard thing when you’re so upset and you go home every night and you cry.

It has… this whole thing has weighed a lot on my family and… as it has the families of all the victims. But… I just… I’m glad that we can talk now. It has been a little bit a relief today when we… we finally reached our decision, and everybody was… no, I can’t say good with the decision, but we knew we had made the right one. The hardest thing for me, truthfully, the fact that he has children and that I know what it would be like to not ever be able to see mine again.

ROBERT ELLIOTT, Juror: Well, I think that… I tried to pay attention to his demeanor the whole time, and just from my personal… personally, I looked for something in him that might have shown remorse or anything along those lines, and I just never saw it the whole time.

DENNIS BOWMAN, Juror: Friday, I voted for life in prison, and I spent a long weekend thinking about it. And some of the other jurors had said, you know, against the death penalty, “how many more bodies do we need to add to this pile we already have?” And I agreed with that. But then I thought about it and I remembered watching Muhammad in the courtroom there.

I mean, this fellow, you can see the wheels turning in his head. He’s going to bide his time, and somewhere down the road, if it takes 20 years, if he’s locked up, you know, put in the deepest hole, sooner or later he’s going to fabricate something, find an opportunity to harm someone else, whether it’s prison personnel or another inmate. And that was what brought me around this morning to decide for the death penalty, to put an end to this once and for all.

TERENCE SMITH: New York Times reporter James Dao joins us now from Virginia Beach, where he has been covering the trial. Jim Dao, welcome.

What was it like today in the courtroom when the recommended sentence was announced?

JAMES DAO: Well, it was much like other days in the courtroom, actually, in that the defendant John Muhammad stood motionless, bolt right, attention, like the military man he once was, staring straight ahead towards the judge and showing no emotion as the clerk read off the two sentences of death.

Across the courtroom, however, there were several jurors who appeared to be wiping away tears, clearly very emotional after what has been a very tough, very wrenching six-week trial.

TERENCE SMITH: And as one of the jurors mentioned, the lack of remorse seems to have been a factor, not only in the verdict, but in the sentencing. And I wonder if you got that sense and had any idea of what it was they were looking for from John Muhammad.

JAMES DAO: Well, defense lawyers will often say juries want to hear some sense of remorse, they want to hear defendants take some responsibility for the crimes they have been convicted of. John Muhammad never did that, and neither did his lawyers.

They expressed… they talked about how tragic they thought the crimes were, but they never said he was remorseful about it. And going back to the early days when Mr. Muhammad defended himself for two days, he said he was not guilty of the crimes.

It was obvious several of the jurors were watching him very closely throughout the trial, just looking to see if he showed any emotion, perhaps shedding a tear or bowing his head during some of the very emotional testimony that described the crimes.

He rarely… in fact, he almost never did that. He was very focused, he was always looking always straight ahead, showing no emotion throughout the trial. And they clearly held that against him.

Now, on the other hand, his own lawyers pointed out that it would have been difficult for him to take credit, in effect, take responsibility for the crimes in that he could well be tried in other jurisdictions, and so they didn’t want to have him, in effect, giving a confession to these crimes in this trial.

TERENCE SMITH: Now, you also had family members in the courtroom today, isn’t that correct, during the announcement of the recommended sentence?

JAMES DAO: Yes. One of Dean Myers’ three brothers was there. Dean Myers is the man who was killed by a sniper shot in Manassas, and his killing was the one they were focusing on in this trial. Bob Myers, he said he wasn’t… that this wasn’t about revenge, and he took no pleasure in the verdict, but he thought it was correct. And you could see he was pleased. He said that anything less would have been the wrong thing.

TERENCE SMITH: And an appeal, I take it, is automatic in Virginia.

JAMES DAO: An appeal to the Virginia State Supreme Court is automatic. And that process will begin sometime next year when the judge accepts… presumably he will accept this decision today. And Mr. Muhammad’s lawyers began, to some degree, outlining some of their arguments already. They clearly think that some of the judge’s instructions to the jury were incorrect.

They may also take issue with the antiterrorism law that was used to prosecute Mr. Muhammad. That’s a new and as yet untested law. So they think there may be fertile ground there for an appeal.

TERENCE SMITH: And there are some other cases. There are obviously several other murders of which he is accused. Are these going to proceed?

JAMES DAO: It seems quite likely that some, and perhaps several, will proceed, although it’s hard to say right now which ones will. Jurisdictions in Alabama and Louisiana as well as Montgomery County, Maryland, have all indicted Mr. Muhammad, and I believe Mr. Malvo, his co- conspirator in this case, for murder. Montgomery County, Maryland, is where six of the shootings occurred and they took a lead role in the investigation.

They had wanted to be the first trial in this case, but it was moved to Virginia by Attorney General John Ashcroft. So Douglas Gansler, the prosecutor for Montgomery County, is saying he would very much like to be next in line.

TERENCE SMITH: Jim Dao, thank you so much for sharing it with us.

JAMES DAO: Thanks for having me.