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Muhammed Found Guilty by Jury In Sniper Trial, Deliberation Brief

By James Dao

The New York Times -- VIRGINIA BEACH, Va.

After a monthlong trial that re-created 16 shootings in gripping detail, a jury on Monday convicted John Allen Muhammad of murdering Dean H. Meyers at a Virginia gas station last fall as part of a plot to terrorize Washington, D.C., and its suburbs.

The jury of seven women and five men took just seven hours to decide that Muhammad directed a 23-day shooting spree intended to extort $10 million from the government by spreading panic. Ten people in the Washington area were killed during the rampage.

As the jury’s 55-year-old foreman, a retired Navy pilot, announced the guilty verdicts before the silent courtroom, Muhammad stood bolt upright, stared straight ahead and maintained the same stone-faced pose he has struck throughout the trial.

But moments after the verdicts were read, Kwang Szuszka, the sister of Hong Ballenger, a Korean immigrant who was killed outside a beauty supply store in Baton Rouge, La., last year, burst into loud sobs in the audience. A few seats away, Katrina Hannum, the daughter of another shooting victim, Linda Franklin, squeezed her eyes closed and silently fought back tears.

The trial moved on Monday afternoon into the penalty phase, when jurors must decide whether to sentence Muhammad, a 42-year-old Gulf War veteran, to death or life in prison without parole. Testimony is expected to last one week.

Muhammad was convicted of two counts of capital murder, one for committing multiple murders in a three-year period and the other for killing to further a terrorist scheme. The jury also found Muhammad guilty on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and the illegal use of a firearm.

“Your decision will put John Muhammad in a box of one form or another,” Jonathan Shapiro, one of Muhammad’s lawyers, told jurors. “One is made of concrete. And one is made of pine.”

Lee Boyd Malvo, an 18-year-old Jamaican who was arrested with Muhammad in a battered Chevrolet Caprice on Oct. 24, 2002, is on trial in the nearby town of Chesapeake on charges that he assisted in the killings.

Robert Meyer, one of Dean Meyer’s three brothers, told reporters after the verdict that justice had been served and that he would consider the death penalty “an appropriate response” to the “heinous” crimes. But he said he did not think the pain from his brother’s murder would ever go away.

“There is always an open wound that remains,” he said.

During a three-week presentation, prosecutors portrayed Muhammad as the calm, cold-blooded captain of a “killing team” that methodically gunned down randomly selected victims, ranging from a 13-year-old student to a 72-year-old Haitian immigrant.

Though Muhammad was charged in just Meyer’s killing, the prosecution presented more than 130 witnesses and 400 pieces of evidence relating to 16 shootings in four states and the District of Columbia in arguing that Muhammad devised and directed a terrorist scheme.

Without a confession or eyewitnesses who could identify Muhammad as the shooter in any of the crimes, the prosecution managed to construct a powerful case using circumstantial evidence, including a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle that police found in Muhammad’s car.