A death sentence in the sniper case

Is this justice?

By: Mike Stark

A Virginia jury has recommended that sniper suspect John Muhammad receives the death penalty after having found him guilty of capital murder. During Muhammad’s formal sentencing hearing, Circuit Judge LeRoy Millette Jr. could have overturned the jury’s decision and reduce the sentence to life in prison without parole, but like most Virginia judges he did not. Meanwhile, the death penalty trial against juvenile suspect Lee Malvo has just begun.

While politicians and prosecutors have attempted to capitalize on the tragedy of the sniper shootings to push their agenda, they have been just as eager to avoid the serious question of what caused this tragedy in the first place.

Attorney General John Ashcroft was among the first to exploit the media frenzy surrounding the sniper suspects. He personally intervened to see that Muhammad and Malvo were transferred from custody in Maryland to Virginia--to make a death penalty conviction more likely. Virginia is second only to Texas in its number of executions--and one of 17 states that sentences 16-year-olds to death.

But the decision to transfer custody to Virginia was about more than sending the two to a pro-death penalty state. When the federal charges were dropped, Muhammad and Malvo were denied access to their federal attorneys--and were once again subjected to hours of grueling interrogation. In the first days of Malvo’s trial, prosecutors introduced the "confession" of the17-year-old obtained after more than seven hours of questioning.

Ashcroft can’t be disappointed by the prosecutors seeking death for the two suspects. Muhammad’s prosecutor is Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert, who has put 12 men on death row--more than any other prosecutor in Virginia. Malvo will be prosecuted by Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Horan Jr., who is best known for getting a death sentence against a brain damaged man accused of killing two CIA employees outside the agency’s headquarters.

To insure Muhammad’s capital conviction, he was charged under a new, untested anti-terrorism law in order to overcome a "limitation" in Virginia’s law that requires a defendant to be the "trigger man" to be eligible for the death penalty. The new law, passed soon after the September 11 attacks, allows the death penalty for those who murder in order to "intimidate the public." No eyewitnesses or confessions show Muhammad was involved in the shootings, and the evidence against him is circumstantial. "We don’t know how they’re going to prove [Muhammad’s guilt], because there is no evidence," said Peter Greenspun, Muhammad’s backup lawyer, in court.

What’s worse, prosecutors plan to say two contradictory things in the different trials of Muhammad and Malvo. To show that Muhammad was "the captain of the killing team," Paul Ebert will argue that he controlled all of Malvo’s actions. But in Malvo’s case, Robert Horan will say that the teen acted of his own free will.

Since the shootings, prosecutors and police from Maryland and Virginia have sought the media spotlight to present their story of what happened. But it’s impossible to find any real discussion about why the shooting spree happened in the first place.

If he is guilty, Muhammad is part of a growing list of 1991 Gulf War veterans accused of horrendous crimes. Experts believe that Muhammad’s alleged role in the sniper shootings would fit the pattern of a veteran suffering from Gulf War Syndrome. And in fact, Muhammad was a member of the U.S. Army’s 84th Engineer Company, which helped to demolish an Iraqi ammunition dump containing rockets filled with the nerve agent sarin. The Pentagon later admitted that the process of blowing up the rockets might have vaporized dangerous amounts of sarin.

Dr. William Baumzweiger, a Los Angeles neurologist and psychiatrist who specializes in treating those suffering from the mysterious collection of illnesses known as Gulf War Syndrome, recognizes this profile. "Once it came out that he had a military background, I said this must be a Gulf War veteran," he told MSNBC. "There is no doubt that a small but significant number of Gulf War veterans became homicidal because of Gulf War Syndrome."

Muhammad’s bizarre decision to act as his own attorney seems to confirm his impaired mental state. However, Muhammad, like many mentally ill defendants, has resisted his attorneys’ efforts to build a defense based on mental illness, refusing to be interviewed by court-appointed psychologists.

While sending another Gulf War veteran and juvenile to die might help the careers of the politicians and prosecutors involved in their trials, it has little to do with justice--or making our communities a safer place to live.