Jury in Washington sniper trial delivers death verdict

The sentence for John Allen Muhammad could prove difficult to overturn on appeal.

The double death verdicts handed down by a Virginia jury in the case of convicted Washington D.C. area sniper John Allen Muhammad will significantly complicate the inevitable appeals to be filed in the case.

Unlike most capital cases, the 12-member jury in Mr. Muhammad's case found him guilty of two capital crimes. That means defense lawyers would have to convince appeals court judges to invalidate both death sentences for Muhammad to receive life in prison rather than death.

Technically, Muhammad hasn't been sentenced to death yet. Prince William County Circuit Judge LeRoy Millette Jr. has set Feb. 12 for the formal sentencing, but legal analysts say it would be highly unusual for the judge to invalidate the death sentences.

While the announced verdicts were expected to bring a measure of closure to family members who lost loved ones during the three-week shooting spree in October 2002, it also sets the stage for what is expected to be a vigorous appeals process. The death verdict could complicate prosecution efforts, too, in the trial of Muhammad's alleged companion in the attacks, Lee Boyd Malvo.

Mr. Malvo's lawyers say their client was "brainwashed" by Muhammad, who served as a father figure to the then 17-year-old. The death verdict for Muhammad is not inconsistent with his defense and could offer jurors in the Malvo case a reason to sentence him to life in prison rather than death.

Jurors in the Malvo case have been instructed to base their verdicts only on information presented in the courtroom. But short of sequestering the jury, it would be extremely difficult to prevent those jurors from hearing news of Muhammad's verdict.

Nonetheless, Malvo's lawyers face major obstacles. For example, they must overcome the weight of his own recorded confession to police shortly after his arrest, in which Malvo took responsibility as the triggerman in virtually all the sniper attacks.

The issue of who exactly pulled the trigger in the shootings could become a cornerstone of an appeal in Muhammad's case.

Under Virginia law, the death penalty has been reserved for the actual shooter in a murder. In some cases, responsibility has been assigned to others when more than one individual fired shots or took actions that may have caused the fatal result.

In the Muhammad trial, there was no evidence that he ever fired a shot. In contrast, there is Malvo's own statement that he, not Muhammad, was the gunman. Virginia prosecutors charged Muhammad under a theory that by controlling Malvo he was captain of the killing team and thus was guilty of capital murder even though there was no direct evidence of his shooting a weapon.

How Virginia appeals courts will view this is unclear. But if they strictly enforce Virginia's so-called triggerman rule, prosecutors will still have the death verdict in a new state terrorism law.

That law will also likely come under attack during the appeal. The broadly worded law was passed after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Virginia lawmakers were concerned that under laws that existed on 9/11, they would be unable to convict Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the attacks, with a capital crime.

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