Judge won’t dismiss capital charge against Muhammad

A Prince William Circuit Court judge denied several motions that would have spared sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad’s life Thursday. Defense attorneys tried to dismantle the constitutionality of Virginia’s death penalty law and raise questions about the integrity of the grand jury selection process. Most of the motions were related to the grand jury selection process, and the fine points of the death penalty statute.

Defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro told Judge Leroy F. Millette that the death penalty was not applicable in the case, because the prosecution could not prove that Muhammad is the one who fired the shot that killed Dean Harold Meyers, 53, at a Sudley Road gas station Oct. 9.

Muhammad, 42, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, are accused of carrying out a month-long shooting spree that claimed 10 lives in the Washington, D.C., and Richmond areas in an effort to extort $10 million from the government. Malvo is charged in Fairfax with killing FBI analyst Linda Franklin at a Home Depot there on Oct. 14.

No evidence exists to substantiate the claims that Muhammad acted as principle in the first degree —- the only criminal classification that enables the filing of capital charges, Shapiro told Millette. He argued that such charges are only applicable to “the killing agent,” contending that person is Malvo. “Unless your act is the homicidal act, you can’t be indicted for death,” Shapiro said.

But prosecutors argued that there are a number of precedents that indicate Muhammad did not need to fire the shot in order to be charged with a capital crime. In some cases, the action one person takes is what enables his partner to carry out the act of killing; the principle in the first can be the “instigator and moving spirit,” prosecutor Richard Conway said. One can qualify if he assists in the commission of a crime as well, according to Conway.

He argued that Muhammad and Malvo formed a “killing team” —- much like a business venture. Together they planned, obtained equipment, and murdered a number of people to extort money, prosecutors argued.

“The defendant was at least an equal participant, if not the team captain,” Conway said. He argued that the defense had not seen all the evidence, and evidence may surface proving Muhammad was the trigger man.

Millette agreed with Conway, ruling that a decision prior to entering evidence would be wrong.

Defense lawyer Peter Greenspun said the indictment handed down against Muhammad after his October arrest last year is not valid, because the grand jury selection process does not require the court to investigate jurors’ backgrounds. Virginia law requires that grand jurors have “honesty, intelligence, and good demeanor.”

Prince William County selects grand jurors by drawing names of 120 past jurors from a computer system. Candidates cannot have served within the previous three years. They are asked to fill out a questionnaire and seven are selected randomly from a pool of people deemed eligible. They are also required to meet with the chief Circuit Court judge.

Issues such as alcohol abuse could have arisen between the last date of service and grand jury service, Greenspun said. The grand jury that indicted Muhammad was invalid because background checks were not completed on them.

Millette, a former chief judge, said he was confident in the legitimacy of the process.

In a number of motions, the defense team tried to argue that the case did not fit two basic tenets of Virginia’s death penalty law: That “future dangerousness” and “vileness” must be proved.

Greenspun argued that a single shot with a rifle from a distance did not constitute vileness, because it is not torture. Prosecutors said the crimes were vile because of the damage inflicted by a high-powered rifle.

The death penalty statute is vague because it does not require the jurors to unanimously agree on both requirements, Greenspun said. Millette said guidelines will be available to the jurors before the trial begins.

Most of the motions argued Thursday are premature, Millette said. He would not consider them before the trial begins and evidence is introduced.

Greenspun argued earlier in the hearing that a gag order should be placed on all local and federal law enforcement officers barring them from releasing information to media outlets as unnamed sources. The leaks are tainting the Prince William jury pool, Greenspun said.

“They hide behind the First Amendment,” he said of the media, adding that the unnamed sources have shown “contempt for professional responsibility.”

Washington Post attorney Adam Pearlman argued that there was no “reasonable likelihood” to show that Post reports will restrict authorities from finding impartial jurors.

Millette said he was confident that an impartial jury could be found, but that he would issue an order that wasn’t nearly as broad as the one Greenspun requested. He called Greenspun’s request “draconian.”

The Court is “pleased” that few leaks have come from Prince William County.