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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Jury Recommends Death for John Muhammad

Aired November 24, 2003 - 11:01   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Let's head live to Virginia Beach, Virginia to get a full update from Patty Davis -- Patty.
PATTY DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Carol, the judge, Leron Nerett (ph), has just released the jury, also has adjourned the court, and he thanked that jury with the dignity with which they handled themselves during the six-week trial. That jury, as you said, has returned two sentences of death for John Muhammad. One for the terrorism count, basically terrorizing the public during the sniper killing spree in Washington D.C. No. 2, death in the -- for the capital murder count of murdering one person in more than three years. They also gave him 10 years for a conspiracy count, and three years for the use of a handgun.

Not only a big win, as Jeffrey Toobin was saying, for Attorney General John Ashcroft, but a big win for Prince William County prosecutor Paul Ebert, who had his reputation on the line. This is probably one of the biggest cases he will have ever tried as prosecutor for the Commonwealth of Prince William County. So a win in his favor today.

The jury, as I was saying, had to find conditions of future dangerousness or depravity of mind. We hope to hear from some jurors as to exactly what brought them to this decision that they did come to.

A very emotional six-week trial. We had 911 phone calls, a frantic William Franklin was heard. His wife was killed outside of a Home Depot. He made a frantic 911 call as he called police. Half of his wife's head was blown off. Also a frantic 911 call from the scene of the Dean Meyers shooting at the Sunoco gas station in Manassas, Virginia. That is the murder for which John Muhammad today has been sentenced to death. Prosecutors also presented evidence of 15 other shootings and murders around the country. And it apparently worked with the jury in this case. They found that not only was he guilty, but that he should die on both counts of capital murder -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Patty, you were telling us before of the reaction of John Muhammad, because I know Jeanne Meserve is in the courtroom. Tell us that again.

DAVIS: It was filtered out to us through Jeanne Meserve that he was very unemotional during the reading of that verdict, the sentence of death by the jury. That's pretty much consistent with what he was throughout this entire trial, very stoic, sitting very military-like, just straight up in his seat. The only time he saw some emotion is when his children's letters were being read by his ex-wife on the stand about how we love you daddy, why did you do these shootings? That kind of thing. Also some home movies that were played for the jury by the defense, trying to show what a caring, loving man that he used to be. And they were arguing, please, show this man some compassion. You did see John Muhammad crack a smile, look a little interested in what was going on. But other than that, very emotionless.

Now you recalled the beginning of the trial, you also saw John Muhammad take over for two days as his own lawyer. Some legal experts were saying that perhaps that would kind of open up a little door for jurors to see his humanity. I think the defense lawyers, even though that really rocked their case, that perhaps they were hoping that may have been the case, too. Apparently, the jury didn't buy it, it did not work here -- Carol.

COSTELLO: No, not at all. Patty Davis, we are going to step away from you, and we're also watching the podium where jurors will come out eventually, and hopefully speak to us and tell us how they reached this decision.

We have our legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin on the line as well.

Jeffrey, this jury wasn't out very long. Did that surprise you?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Not really. This case was so overwhelming. And also there wasn't much of a defense for which I don't fault the lawyers, but there just wasn't much of a claim other than that Malvo was the more likely triggerman. The evidence tying Muhammad to the Chevrolet Caprice, to the vehicle that had the sniper's nest was so overwhelming, there was never remotely a plausible suspect. And this crime was so horrendous that if you have a jury that was death qualified, as the lawyers say, which means jurors who say they are willing to impose the death penalty under certain circumstances, it's hard to imagine if you believe in the death penalty not invoking it for a case like this one.

COSTELLO: All right, Jeffrey, let's go live back to Virginia Beach.

Jeanne Meserve has left the courtroom now. She witnessed the reading of the decision by the jury foreman. Tell us the reaction from inside the courtroom, Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, as Patty has indicated, John Muhammad himself betrayed virtually nothing. He stood ramrod straight as the verdict was read. However, the jury did. There is only one black woman on the jury. She came in clutching a Kleenex, and started wiping her eyes and nose immediately when they sat down, even before the verdict was read. She kept her face averted. She could not look in the direction of John Allen Muhammad. Other jurors did look at him, did follow the rest of the court proceedings, and I would say there was one other juror who appeared to struggle a bit with her emotions as the verdict was read. There were few family members of victims in the courtroom today, only the nephew and brother of Dean Meyers, his murder being the central murder in this case. I did get quick reactions from each of them. Larry Meyers Junior, who is the nephew of Dean Meyers, said justice was done. And Bob Meyers, who is the brother of Dean Meyers, said he was pleased with the verdict. We do expect to hear from them shortly at the microphones.

Also I grabbed prosecutor Paul Ebert. As he left the courtroom, he told me, it's never a pleasure to ask for the death penalty, but certain crimes demand for it, and this was one of those. Again, we expect to hear from him and the rest of the prosecution sometime shortly.

Back to you, Carol.

COSTELLO: I want to talk more about the difficult decision that this jury had to make, and ask our legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin about that, because even though the crimes are outwardly heinous, it's still a difficult decision for a jury to call for death, isn't it?

Jeffrey, are you there?

TOOBIN: Yes, I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were talking to me.

COSTELLO: Yes, I'm asking that of Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: This is the most difficult thing jurors are ever asked to do, and I have seen jurors in death penalty cases display tremendous amounts of emotion, even though the crimes, almost by definition, are horrific that involve the death penalty. The decision to take another life, if through the legal system, is just very hard. And jurors don't do it readily, but this jury did not take long.

COSTELLO: No, it didn't.

Jeanne, I wanted to ask you more about that. This jury, described its attentiveness to us during this trial.

MESERVE: Very attentive. There were only very few instances where I saw them losing interest, but there was gripping testimony through this. Really, it would have been difficult to see how any juror could have nodded off during any of this. It was emotional and dramatic stuff for the most part.

And clearly on Friday, there were some sorts of problems developing. They did ask those questions. They did ask what happens if we don't come to a unanimous decision. If we need to meet on Tuesday, can we meet Tuesday? Clearly, they didn't walk in there and instantaneously come to a decision that they were unanimous on the death penalty, but on the other hand they deliberated for about four hours on Friday and only for about an hour and a half this morning. That's five and a half hours total to come to this verdict.

I want to tell you also, I forget to mention who else was in the courtroom, many members of the sniper task force. These are the members of law enforcement who investigated the crimes initially, who have been involved in building the case, and collecting the evidence and preparing the evidence for trial. Dealing with the fact that you have this trial and the Malvo trial going on simultaneously, many of them were in the courtroom as well, including Charlie Dean of Prince William County, the police chief there. He has a lot invested in this, since the Dean Myers shooting took place in his jurisdiction. He's another person who we do expect to talk to in short order -- Carol.

COSTELLO: And, Jeanne, you live in the community of Washington. Tell us what a relief this must be now for the people who live there.

MESERVE: Well, of course I'm not up there to be polling opinions at this point. I can tell you I have had conversations every weekend when I'm home with people about their feelings about this case. I can tell you that almost everybody who I talked to who is not an opponent of the death penalty believes that this was a death penalty case, and that's the punishment which Mr. Muhammad got. So I imagine those people are pleased with today's verdict, as the family of Dean Meyers obviously is.

But there are those people who simply oppose the death penalty under any circumstances. They of course will be less receptive to what the jury has done here today. This, by the way, is a recommendation of a sentence. It's the judge who imposes the final sentence. In rare instances, the judge can downgrade from death to life in prison without parole, but that's a very rare instance. We certainly aren't looking for that to happen here -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Jeffrey Toobin, are you still on the line?

TOOBIN: Yes, I am.

COSTELLO: That's certainly not going to happen, do you think?

TOOBIN: I can't imagine a reason why it will. Certainly when sentence is imposed, we will see a good preview of the arguments that the defense will make on appeal. That's when they will start to argue that the terrorism count is unprecedented to impose the death penalty. That's when they'll say, because Muhammad wasn't proved to be the triggerman, that is fired the gun, that he shouldn't get the death penalty. So we will begin to see how the case will be argued on appeal, but I don't see any chance really that the judge will do anything but impose the death penalty in February.

COSTELLO: And talking about appeal, this was the first time a person has ever been charged and sentenced under Virginia's new post- 9/11 terrorism law. Can you get into that a bit for us, Jeffrey?

TOOBIN: Well, historically, the death penalty has been allowed by the supreme court only in circumstances where the individual actually committed the crime, actually fired the gun, set off the bomb, set the fire. That's almost the rule under all circumstances. They've never quite said that.

Here, the terrorism law is phrased very broadly, where it involves creating fear in the community by causing death. That has never specifically been addressed by the Supreme Court. This is a very pro-law and order United States Supreme Court. I don't have much doubt that when -- if the justices decide to review the case, they will approve it. It has never been tested by the U.S. Supreme Court, so you can't be sure how they'll come out.

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