Sniper Trial Adds to Virginia Death Penalty Legacy
Oct 16, 11:15 am ET
By Deborah Zabarenko
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (Reuters) - Even before the first witness is called in the murder trial of accused sniper John Muhammad, lawyers focused on the death penalty, the ultimate punishment for crime that has a four-century history in Virginia.
Muhammad, on trial for one of 10 sniper-style killings that terrorized the Washington area a year ago, could face the death sentence if convicted. The only other possibility if he is found guilty is life in prison without parole.
As they picked jurors to hear his case, prosecutors and defense attorneys in this southern resort city seemed to leap beyond innocence or guilt to ask about whether prospective jury members could impose death. And while some flinched, all successful candidates said they could follow Virginia's law.
In Virginia, convicts as young as 16 can be tried as adults and sentenced to death.
Executions take place in Jarratt, Virginia, and may be carried out by electrocution or lethal injection, with lethal injection the default if the condemned person has no preference.
Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of executions performed since 1975; Virginia has performed 89, Texas 310. Though the annual number of Virginia executions has dropped in recent years -- two people have been put to death this year -- the state's history shows a willingness to carry out death sentences.
The first execution in Virginia was in 1608 at the Jamestown colony, the first exercise of the death penalty in the young colonies. Four years later, Virginia's governor, Sir Thomas Dale, enacted the "Divine, Moral and Martial Laws," where the death penalty could be used to punish such offenses as stealing grapes, killing chickens and trading with Indians.
This heritage is important in Virginia, where tradition is key, according to Jack Payden-Travers of the group Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
TRADITION AND THE DEATH PENALTY
"Virginia leads the United States in executions over its 400-year history, and in Virginia, if you do something more than once, it becomes a tradition," Payden-Travers said by telephone.
He said there was also a false political presumption that Virginia candidates won't get elected to statewide office unless they support the death penalty.
Lucien Lombardo, an expert on capital punishment based at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, said the commonwealth's history of inferior legal representation for poor defendants in capital murder cases has some bearing on the death row population.
"My guess is it's primarily people who are poor, who don't have adequate defense," Lombardo said in a telephone interview. "And it's much easier to convict people who have an inadequate defense."
Beyond that, Lombardo said the rules for appealing death penalty cases are limited in Virginia, which may be why this punishment is used more frequently.
Muhammad and his young traveling companion, Lee Malvo, 17 at the time, are suspects in the series of 10 killings and three injuries that occurred in Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C.
Though the pair was arrested in Maryland, where seven of the 13 shootings occurred, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft chose Virginia for the first trials because of its death penalty laws.
Maryland has a death penalty law, which was under a moratorium last year when the sniper suspects were arrested. While the moratorium has since been lifted, Maryland has only imposed the death penalty three times since 1975 and will not do so for a juvenile.
"It is imperative that the ultimate sanction be available for those who committed these crimes," Ashcroft said last November in announcing his decision.
Muhammad faces two capital murder counts, including one pegged to Virginia's new anti-terrorism law, passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Both counts carry a possible death sentence even though they stem from a single killing, the death of Dean Meyers, a 53-year-old Maryland man who was shot as he refueled his car in Manassas, Virginia, a Washington suburb. Opening statements are in the trial are expected to begin Monday.
The proceeding was moved 200 miles from Manassas to Virginia Beach for fear the intense publicity about the case in the Washington area would prejudice the panel of 12 jurors and three alternates.