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Verdict in Trial of Sniper Suspect John Allen Muhammad

Aired November 17, 2003 - 11:40   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get back to our breaking news. We're getting word there is a verdict back already in the murder trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad. Deliberations began only on Friday. He faces four charges, and he could face the death penalty if convicted. There's a list of the charges that are pending: terrorism, capital murder, conspiracy and use of a firearm.
Our legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin with us on the phone to talk about this very quick verdict -- Jeffrey.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, if this is anything other than a conviction, I think everyone, starting with me, will be very surprised. The relatively brief deliberation, just a little more than a day, the overwhelming nature of the evidence, I think all signs point to a conviction. But in a world where Robert Durst gets acquitted, who knows?

KAGAN: Yes, we're getting word, I'm actually counting number of hours of deliberation, only 6 1/2 hours. That practically doesn't seem enough time to go through all the evidence that was presented during the trial.

TOOBIN: Well, it's certainly not enough time to go through 130 plus witnesses, which is what the prosecution presented. But there is no formal requirement that the jury goes through the evidence in any specific way, whether piece of physical evidence by physical evidence, or witness by witness. All they have to do is see whether they agree with each other. And evidently, they do, without much difficulty.

KAGAN: Let's talk about some steps leading up to this point of a verdict coming in. First of all, the number of shootings and murders taking place in the Washington D.C., in the Maryland, in the Virginia area, and yet the trial being moved. First of all, let's talk about the trial being done in Virginia, given the long list of charges he faces.

TOOBIN: Well, that was obviously a very crucial decision, and it was made by Attorney General John Ashcroft. There were many competing jurisdictions, Maryland, Virginia, the federal government. There also were possible charges in Louisiana. It's -- this was something that had to be settled by the federal government, and regardless of the result here, Muhammad and Malvo could well be facing many more trials in other jurisdictions for years to come.

KAGAN: Let's talk about Lee Boyd Malvo. He is the other defendant in this case, now 18 years old, 17 years old when these crimes were committed. He is not that far away; he's in Chesapeake, Virginia. His trial just getting under way within the last week.

TOOBIN: Are you talking to me, Daryn?


TOOBIN: Yes, It's a very odd situation, to have these trials going on simultaneously, and I think it's going to be a tremendous challenge for the judge in the Malvo case somehow to shield those jurors from the verdict in the Muhammad case, which will get a great deal of publicity. But Virginia is a state that believes in speedy trials. They're moving forward with both of them, and I anticipate that regardless of what happens, appeals courts will not much a complaint about it, and will let stand whatever ruling is made.

KAGAN: When you look at the Malvo trial, what his defense attorneys are doing, going for the insanity defense, trying to make the claim that he was brainwashed, that he was overly influenced by John Allen Muhammad. Could this quick verdict and could a guilty verdict actually help Lee Boyd Malvo? Because you can make the case, see, Muhammad is guilty, and that's the person who influenced this then-juvenile?

TOOBIN: I think it doesn't hurt as much as it might. But I think convictions are never good for defendants. I'm sure they are not looking forward to a conviction in the Malvo case.

Malvo's lawyers do have several defenses available to them that Muhammad didn't. Neither one of these cases is easy, but the Muhammad case is a lot harder to defend. Malvo is much younger. He was impressionable. He was, I think it's safe to say, very much under the sway of John Muhammad. Whether that gets him acquitted in the guilt phase I think is a very, very long shot, but Malvo's defense has seemed very much from the start aimed at trying to avoid the death penalty in the penalty phase, and that's where the argument of Malvo being under the sway of Muhammad could have a significant impact.

KAGAN: I find it interesting that you say that Malvo in some ways is an easier defense, because in that trial, there is actually physical evidence, and there are hours of tapes in which he confesses to the detectives in Fairfax County.

TOOBIN: That is true, that the issue of the confession is what defense lawyers like to call a fact for their side, but you have to, I think, put it in the context of a teenager, and someone who was very much under the sway of this man in his 40s. It is a much more sympathetic posture, certainly for the penalty phase, if not for the guilt phase.

But as I say, I don't think any one of these cases is easy to defend. It's like both of them are very hard, but I think the Malvo lawyers have more options available to them than the Muhammad lawyers do.

KAGAN: Once again, if our viewers are just joining us, we're getting word there's already a verdict back from the jury in the John Allen Muhammad case. We're expecting it within the next 10 minutes. And you'll hear about it first here on CNN.

Before we got the word of the verdict, the other big news today, Jeffrey, was this word that the prosecutors, if indeed there is a penalty phase, wanted to bring up the fact or information that earlier in March, John Allen Muhammad made attempts to escape.

TOOBIN: You know, there is so much evidence in this case, you sort of wonder why they need more. I can't imagine that this will be the deciding factor one way or the other, but it is relevant, if it's true,that there is a -- an escape attempt is something that would commonly be brought up in the penalty phase of a trial.

But the issue here I don't think is escape. The issue here is the magnitude of the crime. I mean, this is such an enormous, horrible crime, if Muhammad is convicted of having done it.

The reason the jury will order him executed is not going to be because he tried to escape; it's going to be because he participated in killing so many people.

KAGAN: All right, Jeff, we're going to have you hang on here.

And our Elaine Quijano is outside the courthouse in Virginia Beach, with more on exactly when this verdict will be read -- Elaine.

TOOBIN: Elaine is at the courthouse. Elaine?

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Daryn.

Well, I can tell you that family members and members of the media have been called back into the courtroom. We're expecting now in about eight or nine minutes or so for that verdict to be read.

Now this comes after the jury had just about 6 1/2 hours of deliberations. They resumed their deliberations this morning 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time, after taking a break over the weekend. Back on Friday, they had about four hours of deliberations. And they have had a mountain of circumstantial evidence to go through, some three weeks of testimony. The prosecution calling more than 130 witnesses to the stand, presenting some 400 pieces of evidence in this case.

Now, by contrast, the defense took just under three hours to present their side. They called to the stand only five witnesses in their case. The jury has been locked up in that deliberations room with the evidence. They had asked on Friday to hear a 911 tape. They did not have the equipment at that time to play it. And this morning, the judge told them they did, in fact, believe they had the recorder to play that 911 tape. And now, as I said, family members and media members being brought back into the courtroom. We're waiting that verdict now probably in less than 20 minutes or so.

KAGAN: All right, we're hear about it first here on CNN.

Elaine, thank you for that.


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