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Muhammad Guilty on All Counts

Aired November 17, 2003 - 11:48   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: And we go back to our breaking news coverage out of Virginia Beach, Virginia. A verdict is already in in the trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad. The jury deliberated for only 6 1/2 hours. They started on Friday. And yet the jury is expected to announce its verdict within the next five minutes. We have out Mike Ahlers and our Jeanne Meserve inside the courthouse in Virginia Beach. Elaine Quijano is outside. And we have our legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin with us on the phone.
Looking at the charges pending against Muhammad, terrorism, capital murder, conspiracy and use of a firearm. The charges of murder and terrorism could carry the death penalty if he is convicted.

Let's bring our Jeffrey Toobin back in. Remind our viewers that you are a former federal prosecutor. But even you, and with the trials you have seen, you're surprised with the shortness of the deliberations.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: This is really unusually short. And I guess as someone who's covered virtually all of the high-profile murder cases since the O.J. Simpson verdict, the juries seem to be going out of their way in these cases to deliberate for longer than the original O.J. jury.

If you recall, that jury, after a three-month trial came back with a verdict in really less than a day and received a lot of criticism for their cursory attention to the evidence.

I think this trial, the jury is close to the line of too short deliberation. But I think once jurors agree with each other, they really feel there's no more reason to talk about it any more.

KAGAN: Going through some of the aspects of this trial. First of all the change of venue taking it out of the Washington, D.C. area. That was significant because why?

TOOBIN: Well, this crime was unusual in many respects, but it was especially unusual because the whole region was the alleged victim. The charge of terrorism is a charge that says you tried to terrorize an entire community. And I think any of us who were around during that period can testify that it was terrorized.

And so I think this was one of the strongest cases for a change of venue I've ever seen because basically every possible juror was a victim of the crime. So it had to be moved out of that community. And I think the judges made the right decision. KAGAN: This one got strange very quickly, as there was that time at the beginning of the trial when John Allen Muhammad said he was firing his attorneys and wanted to represent himself which he did for a couple days. It didn't seem like the wisest move.

TOOBIN: Boy, Daryn, that seems like a long time ago. It is true that there was a period when he represented himself. It went for little more than a day. I can't imagine that it's going to have much of an impact one way or the other.

It will be interesting if this case moves to a penalty phase, the fact that these jurors have heard his voice, heard him speak. They know in rough sense of how smart he, how articulate he is, whether that will have any impact. Frankly, I doubt it. In a case like this, what really matters is what should matter, the evidence.

KAGAN: Want to talk about the evidence. We do want to tell our viewers that the verdict being read is just a couple minutes away. You'll hear about it first on CNN.

Let's talk about that evidence, Jeff. There was a problem trying to hold two trials at the same time. One in Chesapeake where Lee Boyd Malvo's trial is taking place. This one in Virginia Beach. This judge in Muhammad's trial was holding some of the evidence that they would like to get on at the Malvo trial.

TOOBIN: I have never seen a situation like this, where you have two trials going on over the same set of facts. And the question is, who gets the Bushmaster rifle? Who gets to present it to the jury? I think it's likely that there won't be too much overlap.

But I think it's indicative of how Virginia, as a legal culture believes in speedy trials. That instead of delaying, they're basically saying, you work it out. Don't ask for the same evidence at the same time. But keep going.

In a world where California has precisely the opposite legal culture, where the preliminary hearing in the Laci Peterson case is into its second week with fewer than a dozen witnesses called, here you had a 14-day trial with over 130 witnesses called. There are 50 different legal systems in the United States. You really see it when you compare trials.

KAGAN: I imagine there would be a number of times when you would have more than one defendant and more than one trial taking place. Are you saying the second trial would have been delayed until the first one is wrapped up?

ARRAF: Absolutely. It is unusual when you think about it, to have precise same set of facts being tried in two different trials. Usually the idea is to keep them them -- is to have one trial with multiple defendants.

Here, they decided to charge -- try the defendants separately. It's an unusual situation to start with, but I think most courts would try to put some space between them, but not in Virginia. KAGAN: Once again for our viewers, we are just moments away from the verdict being read in the trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad. We'll bring you the news first as it breaks. We have Jeanne Meserve inside the courthouse in Virginia Beach. We're getting word that the judge has just called for the jury.

While we're waiting for this, and this is going break any moment, let's just talk about how this ended up in Virginia in the first place. They don't talk about it now, but there was definitely a tug of war over who was going to get their hands on them first. Especially considering that the most number of murders took place in Maryland and not Virginia.

TOOBIN: The decision was made by one man. It was made over one issue. The man was John Ashcroft, the attorney general of the United States. Here you had a classic confrontation between states. Virginia and Maryland both wanted to try -- both wanted to try these two because the murders took place in their states.

Also, the federal government had a claim over to try both of them because they were possible federal violations as well. And John Ashcroft decided that this case should go to Virginia. And the one issue that swayed him as he very candidly said, was that the death penalty is much more invoked in Virginia. Virginia, I believe, is neck and neck with Florida to be second in number of executions behind Texas.

Maryland, at the time of this trial, had a moratorium in effect over the death penalty. It's very rarely imposed. And John Ashcroft who, like President Bush, is a strong supporter of the death penalty, said there's a better chance of the maximum penalty in Virginia. That's where we're going first.

KAGAN: If there is in fact a guilty verdict, what's the next step?

TOOBIN: The next step will be a penalty phase. It will go very quickly. It may well start tomorrow.

The -- both sides will present what's called aggravating and mitigating factors. That is factors that make this crime either especially worthy of the death penalty, or in terms of mitigating factors, something about John Muhammad's background or the circumstances of this crime that show he shouldn't get the death penalty.

But they'll move right to that. And, actually, Daryn, there's an interesting legal question that the judge has decided, which is a possible avenue for appeal, if there is a conviction.

The capital murder crime here is under...

KAGAN: Jeff, let me just jump in here and interject. We are getting the verdict in. Guilty on terrorism and guilty on capital murder. So at least two are back. I imagine we're going to hear more. And again, we're hearing this from inside the court room. The judge decided not to allow cameras in the court room. All four counts guilty. So there you have it, Jeff. Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad has been found guilty on all four counts in the Virginia Beach court room. And that means, I would assume, that he will now face the death penalty in the penalty phase.

TOOBIN: Absolutely. It is worth pausing to just recognize what an important moment this is. This was a major crime in American history. I certainly -- not in my life time do I recall a community terrorized the way the Washington area was terrorized during those awful days when person after person was getting killed. And now the legal system has assigned responsibility. And I think that's an important moment and I think a moment that the legal system can be proud of.


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