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Sniper trial brings death penalty back in spotlight

The guilty verdict in the trial of John Allen Muhammad brings back the debate over the death penalty.

There can be no justice for the people murdered by John Allen Muhammad in the Washington, D.C., area in October 2002.

A jury in Virginia Beach, Va., was right to enter a guilty verdict this week for Muhammad on two counts, one for terrorizing the people around Washington, the second for committing multiple murders.

The total number of murders committed by Muhammad and his alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, is 10 in the Washington area.

Sentencing hearings have begun and will result either in a sentence of life in prison or the death penalty.

The trial of Malvo, 17 at the time of the murders, continues in Chesapeake, Va., and also could result in the death penalty.

Although no witness directly saw the men shoot any of the victims, the circumstantial evidence at the 42-year-old Muhammad’s case was overwhelming.

They were caught red-handed in their 1990 Chevrolet Caprice “killing machine” with the hole cut in the trunk for a gun barrel to stick out. Ballistics on a rifle found with them matched that of the killing bullets.

The crimes were unique in American history. There have been mass killings before, alas, but none in which two killers drove around in a car and committed random shootings to terrorize the populace.

“It’s unique certainly that he had the boy with him, acting as a Svengali” to Malvo, Gilbert Geis said; he’s professor emeritus of criminology at the University of California and author of “Crimes of the Century: From Leopold and Loeb to O.J. Simpson.”

“The boy probably will get off easier, contending that Muhammad put his will on him,” Geis said.

Another unique feature of the trial was that Muhammad began representing himself, before reinstating defense lawyers Jonathan Shapiro and Peter Greenspun. Geis said this allowed Muhammad to “perform before the jury as a human being,” while showing “a certain amount of poise.”

On the penalty phase of the trial, Geis was not pleased that the relatives of victims will be allowed to testify. “It doesn’t lead to impartial justice,” he said. “How they feel shouldn’t matter,” only the facts of the case.

He said the trial of Muhammad now comes down to the longstanding battle in America over the justice of the death penalty. It is ironic that the debate now is over whether to grant this murderer the mercy he denied his victims.

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