Death Penalty Partisans Mull Sniper Sentencing

Death penalty proponents galvanized by the sentencing this week of John Allen Muhammad (search) say the case of the Beltway Sniper is a perfect example of the fair application of capital punishment.

"This is precisely the kind of case where the death penalty is warranted. It's a case where anything less would be a travesty of justice," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (search).

But opponents of the death penalty say the uneven application of the sentence is just one reason that execution is a haphazard penalty. They also point out that federal prosecutors never even demonstrated whether Muhammad pulled a trigger, and that alone is enough to give him the basis for an appeal.

"The triggerman issue" will be one reason for an appeal, said Peter Greenspun, one of Muhammad's defense attorneys.

Muhammad was found guilty earlier this month of two counts of capital murder connected with the Oct. 9, 2002, slaying of Dean Harold Meyers (search) at a gas station in Manassas, Va. One of the charges was filed under Virginia's post-Sept. 11, 2001, anti-terrorism laws.

The Virginia Beach jury took five hours to recommend that Muhammad die by lethal injection or electrocution, whichever he prefers.

Muhammad's alleged accomplice, 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo (search), confessed to firing the Bushmaster rifle used in all 16 shootings that terrorized the Washington, D.C., area for 21 days in October 2002. Muhammad's actual use of the gun in the killings was never proven.

Other experts have suggested that Muhammad may have another basis for appeal — the judge allowed him to represent himself in the beginning of the trial, digging himself into a hole from which his attorneys were never able to pull him out.

Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. (search) will formally sentence Muhammad on Feb. 12, 2004. Though the judge can reduce the punishment to life in prison without parole, experts say Virginia judges rarely take that opportunity.

During the trial, Millette instructed jurors that the fact Muhammad never pulled the trigger in any of the shootings was irrelevant because Muhammad, portrayed as having almost hypnotic control over Malvo, was an "immediate perpetrator."

"A person who directs someone else to commit a murder is every bit as culpable as the triggerman and is every bit as guilty," Scheidegger said, adding that he's not worried that Muhammad's role in the shootings will raise doubts about the implementation of the death penalty.

Diane Clements, president of Houston-based Justice for All (search), agreed.

"Anyone who has the forethought to drive around and drill a hole and stand there and be a lookout is as guilty as the person who pulled the trigger," she said. Muhammad's car had an opening cut into the trunk, which police say was used to hide the shooter while he took aim and fired.

Polls show steady support for the death penalty, with about two-thirds of the public consistently saying they back capital punishment. A Gallup poll conducted Oct. 6-8, 2003, found that 64 percent favored the death penalty for a person convicted of murder, while 32 percent opposed it, and 4 percent had no opinion.

"There are certain cases which deserve the death penalty and we feel this is one of them. We said from the beginning, the death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst," said Paul Ebert, lead prosecutor in the Muhammad case.

"The society wants it, and I think it's justice," said Paul Laruffa, a victim wounded in a shooting by the Beltway snipers. 

But even jurors who supported Muhammad's sentence said they are uncertain about the application of the death penalty. Juror Elizabeth Young, who asked the judge whether she could research the death penalty over the weekend before making her recommendation on Monday, told reporters that she had mixed feelings about capital punishment.

"It's possible that I will become an anti-death penalty activist, but for now I felt it was my duty as a juror" to agree to Muhammad's execution, she said. Young said in making her decision she took into account the seriousness of the crime, the law, God, her family and the opinions of the other jurors and the public.

Death penalty opponents say the marks of a flawed system are all over this case and will raise concerns about the death penalty.

"I think, if anything, when people compare the sentence in this case to the sentence for the Green River murder case in Washington state, they're going to see that the death penalty is unfair. There's no way to make it fair," said Jack Payden-Travers, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (search), referring to the case of serial killer Gary Ridgway (search), who admitted earlier this month to murdering 48 women. He received life in prison in exchange for revealing where he buried the bodies.

Whether its application is equal or not, Clements said the brutality of high-profile cases could convince people of the necessity of the death penalty.

"There will be people who probably are fence-sitters, who will say, 'I never really thought about it, but if anybody does deserve it, he does and if he does, maybe I do support the death penalty,'" Clements said, comparing the sniper case to that of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

But Clements said many people are already entrenched in their opinions about the death penalty, and that likely won't change.

"Those who support it will herald it, and those who oppose it will think it’s a horrible event," she said.

"It seems to me it probably wouldn't change anybody's position one way or another. If you support the death penalty, you would probably support it in this case. If you oppose it, you would probably oppose it in this case," said Rachel King, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's (search) Capital Punishment Project and author of the ACLU report "Broken Justice: The Death Penalty in Virginia."

King said that Virginia death row inmates spend an average 7.2 years after sentencing in lock-up before they are put to death, lower than the national average.

Before Muhammad is executed, he will receive an automatic appeal. He is also expected to be tried in other states, and will likely spend years on death row.

That's just one reason Ebert said he supports the death penalty.

The U.S. justice system is "the best in the world" and "a system that works," he said.