WASHINGTON — Seven years ago this month, the captured Beltway snipers — John Allen Muhammad, then 41, and his accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, 17 — were in federal custody, accused of 16 shootings and 10 murders. They had set out to create a reign of terror in the Washington area to match the 9-11 attacks of the year before.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft had a choice: He could send them to be tried in Maryland, where most of the murders took place but where the death penalty was on hold because of the specter of racial unfairness. Or he could send them across the Potomac River to Virginia, the site of three of the killings, where death sentences are carried out swiftly.
Ashcroft chose Virginia.
On Tuesday, Muhammad is scheduled to die by lethal injection in a Virginia prison, his initial appeals having been dismissed by state and federal judges.
"History has borne out the attorney general made the right call," said Mark Corallo, who was Ashcroft's spokesman. "These crimes were so brutally coldblooded and calculated."
Muhammad's new lawyers lodged a last set of emergency appeals with the Supreme Court last week. Their main claim is that the case has moved too quickly. They said judges in Virginia cut short the time for filing appeals and refused to hold a single hearing after the trial.
Jonathan Sheldon, Muhammad's current lawyer, describes his client as mentally ill.
"He is delusional, paranoid and incompetent. He was angry at the government after he came back from the Gulf War. And he has delusions of racist conspiracies," Sheldon said.
He faults Muhammad's trial lawyers for having described him as a "very bright man" to the jury, and for not recounting his mental problems.
Sheldon said Muhammad called him a few days ago to say he should find Muhammad's dentist to confirm that he was not in Washington at the time of the crimes.
"He's in Nuremberg," Muhammad said, according to his lawyer's account. "In Germany?" the lawyer asked.
"It's a week before his execution, and he thinks we should be looking for a dentist in Germany," Sheldon said.
Meanwhile, prosecutors and families of the victims have said they are comforted that Muhammad is facing the death penalty and that an execution is on schedule.