Sniper Suspect Praised Terrorists
Prosecutors Buttress Arguments for Death In Muhammad Case
By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 19, 2003; Page A01
Prince William County prosecutors allege that sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad said "America got what it deserved" in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and that he has expressed other anti-American and racist views.
The new allegations came yesterday in a notice from prosecutors of their intent to prove as many as 14 "unadjudicated acts" to convince a jury that Muhammad deserves the death penalty if he is convicted of murder this fall. The other acts include an attack similar to last fall's sniper shootings in which he allegedly fired at passing cars with a rifle from a concealed position at a Tacoma, Wash., park and also at a synagogue there.
Under Virginia law, after a defendant has been convicted of murder, prosecutors may present to the jury evidence of other crimes to prove the defendant's future danger to society. The level of proof during the sentencing phase is not as high as during the guilt phase -- only a "preponderance of the evidence," or a balance that tips even slightly toward one side.
Prince William prosecutors listed four Washington area sniper shootings as acts they would present to a jury if Muhammad was convicted: the slayings of James D. Martin in Wheaton on Oct. 2 and James L. "Sonny" Buchanan in Rockville on Oct. 3, the wounding of Rupinder Oberoi in Silver Spring on Sept. 14 and the shooting into a Michaels craft store in Wheaton on Oct. 2.
But prosecutors also said they may present evidence of the Feb. 16, 2002, slaying of Keenya Cook, 21, in Tacoma. Cook's aunt had worked with Muhammad and sided with his ex-wife in a custody dispute, and Cook was shot in the face when she answered the front door of her aunt's home. No one has been charged with Cook's death. But two Maryland jail guards testified at a hearing last month that Muhammad's co-defendant, Lee Boyd Malvo, told them he had "shot [a] girl" in the face in Washington state.
Muhammad, 42, and Malvo, 18, are charged in all 13 sniper shootings in the region in October. They also are suspected in at least six other shootings across the country. Muhammad faces his first trial, in the Oct. 9 killing of Dean H. Meyers at a gas station near Manassas. Malvo is set for trial in November for the Oct. 14 killing of Linda Franklin in the Seven Corners area of Fairfax County. Both trials have been moved to southeastern Virginia. Muhammad is scheduled for trial Oct. 14.
Jerry Costello, chief criminal deputy prosecutor in Pierce County, Wash., said yesterday that he had not heard from anyone on the sniper task force about Cook's slaying and that his office has not been provided with the statements Malvo made to the Maryland jail guards. Costello said Muhammad and Malvo "are clearly our suspects, but we do not have all the information we need to make a decision about whether we would charge them."
Costello said Tacoma investigators have recovered the handgun used in Cook's slaying. In addition, a witness has told investigators that he allowed Muhammad and Malvo to use the gun for target practice.
Prince William prosecutors also allege that Muhammad was shooting at passing cars at McKinley Park in Tacoma. Costello said that police believed the shooting may have involved the same Bushmaster rifle later used in the sniper killings but that he had received no police reports on the incident. Similarly, bullet holes and bullets were at found Temple Beth El synagogue in early May last year, Prince William prosecutors said. Costello said the congregation viewed the incident as a hate crime. No one was hurt.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed at the hearing yesterday that the notice of unadjudicated acts would be sealed, but it was posted on the court's Web site before that decision was made. Prince William Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. later ruled that it should be unsealed.
Jonathan Shapiro, one of Muhammad's attorneys, said the notice should not have been made public. "It's our understanding that this was to be filed under seal, and that's for good reason," Shapiro said. "The allegations in that document are contested and may never even see the light of day at trial." He declined to answer questions.
Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
The allegations of anti-American statements may stem from conversations Muhammad had shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. At least three people in the Bellingham, Wash., area have said that Muhammad spoke favorably of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Harjeet Singh, who befriended Muhammad and Malvo at the Bellingham YMCA, told The Washington Post last October that Muhammad said the attacks "should have happened a long time ago."
Two fishermen told the Seattle Times that they were sitting at a bar discussing retaliation against al Qaeda when Muhammad told them that the United States was itself a terrorist state. The fishermen said that they threatened Muhammad and that he left.
The Prince William prosecutors also want to present evidence that Muhammad forged passports and driver's licenses, that he was an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal passport fraud case, that he was involved in the mugging of a man in Arizona and that he was involved in the murder of Million Woldemariam in Atlanta on Sept. 21.
Also yesterday, Millette began shaping the jury selection process. The judge said 120 Virginia Beach residents would be summoned for possible seats on the jury. He also edited the questionnaire that defense attorneys want to give to potential jurors and rejected a defense request for a publicly funded jury consultant.
The method of questioning the potential jurors was not finalized. Shapiro argued for having panelists fill out a questionnaire, then answer general questions about their availability and their pasts, followed by individual questioning of each panelist by the attorneys and the judge. Ebert suggested questioning in groups of three.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company