x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Debate rages over execution of sniper

Many will be glad to see the man who terrorised the region put to death but others stress that due process must be observed.

The convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad, centre, addresses the court along with his attornies Peter Greenspun, left, and Jonathan Shapiro, right, before being sentenced to death.
The convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad, centre, addresses the court along with his attornies Peter Greenspun, left, and Jonathan Shapiro, right, before being sentenced to death.

When a Virginia judge set November 10 as the execution date for John Allen Muhammad, mastermind of the sniper attacks that left 10 dead and and terrorised the Washington, DC region in October 2002, the blogosphere was filled with the expected rants about capital punishment. "He is as guilty as they come and if the state is going to have a death penalty, then he is as deserving of the punishment as can be possibly imagined," wrote one reader on the website of The Washington Post. "Osama bin Laden wishes he could have terrorised as many Americans as this little animal did in 2002. I still remember being nervous about walking out to my car in Bethesda," a Maryland suburb, wrote another. "Good riddance. They should have done it seven years ago," a third wrote. Their comments are indicative of the emotions that still run high about a time when Sari Horwitz, a Post reporter, said she "never felt so scared about a story" she was covering. It is because of such feelings that Eric Friedman, an expert on the death penalty and a constitutional law professor at Hofstra University in New York, said: "The more the crime arouses public outrage the more critical it is to proceed in a cool-headed, judicious manner to ensure that justice is done." Although he said that additional appeals would probably mean Muhammad will not be executed on November 10, he argued that such procedures are necessary and fundamental to the US system of justice. Muhammad's lawyer, Jonathan Shapiro, has said he will file an appeal to the US Supreme Court and ask the Virginia governor, Tim Kaine, to grant clemency. A variety of state and federal courts have rejected Muhammad's previous appeals in which his attorneys have made a number of arguments, including that he should not have been allowed to represent himself at the start of his trial because he was mentally ill and that prosecutors failed to turn over key documents to the defence. Muhammad was sentenced to death in 2004 for killing Dean Meyers while he was pumping petrol into his car in Prince William County, Virginia, on October 9 2002. His accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, was sentenced to life in prison without parole in a separate trial for a sniper killing in Fairfax County, Virginia. Muhammad was given six life sentences for killings in Maryland. The pair are also considered prime suspects in deadly shootings in several other states. To those who argue, as many on the Post website did, that Muhammad should have already been executed, Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, points out the fact of "the safeguards in the criminal justice system having nothing to do with the worthiness of the defendant ? At trial, he is presumed to be innocent no matter how heinous the crime. During appeals, it is presumed that mistakes might have been made that require a re-trial." Mr Dieter's organisation's research has found that since 1973, 135 people have been exonerated and freed from death row, including five people in 2009. Some were freed only because of extraordinary work by individuals outside the criminal justice system. "The system remains fallible even with ? appeals, while the death penalty presumes perfection because it can never be undone," Mr Dieter said, mentioning that he thought Muhammad was running out of issues on which to base any appeal and that November 10 "is a serious date" for him. "Although the average time between sentencing and execution is over 10 years in the country, the average in Virginia is only about six years. Virginia has a relatively small death row so the courts are not overwhelmed with so many cases as they are in Florida and California," Mr Dieter said. "Moreover, both the Virginia state courts and the federal courts that provide final review for Virginia cases are known as places for speedier litigation. Add to that the notorious nature of his crime and the fact that he defended himself, there may not be too many issues left to challenge. "I think there is a greater support for the death penalty and execution of someone like Muhammad because people personally felt the danger of his actions. However, I don't think his case takes away from the problems of the death penalty generally. People realise that the sniper is very unusual and that the death penalty is fraught with problems," Mr Dieter said. No one other than Muhammad has ever professed his innocence and Horwitz, who co-wrote Sniper: Inside the Hunt for the Killers Who Terrorized the Nation, like other journalists who have investigated the case, has not been able to uncover what his motives were. "Some of the evidence in the case pointed to the killings being tied to his anger about losing his kids to his wife, who had moved to Maryland. The investigators thought he wanted to eventually kill his wife, and with all their random shootings around the area, she would just be seen as another victim," she said. "According to interviews with Malvo, they also wanted to create havoc and fear to extort money for a utopian-like community they wanted to create. Some investigators did think this was a personal jihad for Muhammad. But Muhammad never explained the motive." rpretorius@thenational.ae