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
“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
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.
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler agrees, though
he objected to Ashcroft’s 2002 decision to move the case.
“It has worked out for the better. If you are going to
have a death penalty, John Muhammad — just like Tim McVeigh — is the poster boy
for the death penalty,” said Gansler, referring to the Oklahoma City
bomber who was executed in 2001. At the time of the Washington shootings,
Gansler was chief prosecutor in Montgomery County, Md., where six of the
Besides the 10 killings in the Washington area, Muhammad and
Malvo were believed to have killed at least seven others in their cross-country
It began on Sept. 5, 2002, when a restaurant owner in
Clinton, Md., was shot six times as he left his establishment. He survived, but
a young thief, apparently Malvo, stole $3,500 in cash from him. Ten days later,
the owner of a nearby liquor store was shot and robbed.
It was not until Oct. 3 that the shootings gripped the
Washington area. At 8:15 a.m., a taxi driver was fatally shot while fueling his
car. Fifteen minutes later, a woman was fatally shot in the head while sitting
on a bench outside a restaurant. Less than two hours later, another woman was
fatally shot as she stood next to her car. And that evening, a man was shot on
a street in northwest Washington.
The shootings continued throughout the month. The FBI
eventually used fingerprints on ransom notes to trace Muhammad and Malvo back
to Washington state, where their shooting spree had begun. The bureau posted a
public alert for the old Chevy Caprice the two were driving. And they were
arrested while asleep at a rest stop along a highway in Maryland on Oct. 24,
2002. The killing spree was over.
Malvo was convicted of the murders, but because of his young
age, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.