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Muhammad jurors to begin deliberations Friday

Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad
Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia (CNN) -- Jury deliberations will begin Friday morning in the sniper shootings trial of John Allen Muhammad after defense attorneys and prosecutors completed closing arguments Thursday.

Jurors are scheduled to begin deliberations at 9 a.m. EST. If a verdict is not reached beforehand, jurors will recess at 1 p.m. EST for the weekend.

On Thursday, prosecutor Richard Conway told jurors that Muhammad was the captain of a "killing team." Conway contended that there was "compelling physical evidence" of Muhammad's role in the 2002 killing spree in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., that left 10 dead and three wounded.

Muhammad, 42, was a "principal in the first degree" or an "immediate perpetrator" of the sniper shootings, Conway said, citing ballistic evidence he described as "uncontradicted."

Although 18-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo, Muhammad's alleged accomplice, may have pulled the trigger, Muhammad shares equal responsibility, Conway said.

Opening statements in Malvo's trial were held Thursday in neighboring Chesapeake, Virginia. Malvo is on trial in the October 14, 2002, shooting death of Linda Franklin at a store parking lot in Falls Church, Virginia. Malvo has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. (Full story)

Testimony in the Malvo trial will begin Monday.

Conway likened Muhammad's role to an arson case in which two people enter a house, one pours gasoline "and his buddy comes in and lights the match and starts the fire."

Judge LeRoy Millette Jr. ruled Wednesday that Muhammad could be found guilty of murder even if his alleged accomplice was the triggerman. Under Virginia law, a principal in the first degree or immediate perpetrator could be found guilty of murder, Millette said.

Muhammad faces charges of murder, terrorism, conspiracy and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. The murder and terrorism charges could carry the death penalty.

He is charged with capital murder in the October 9, 2002, slaying of Dean Harold Meyers outside a Manassas gas station. He is eligible for the death penalty if the jury decides the prosecution proved Muhammad was responsible for at least two murders within three years.

Muhammad and Malvo are the first suspects to be charged under Virginia's terrorism law, passed after the September 11, 2001, attacks. The law makes a murder defendant eligible for the death penalty if prosecutors prove he committed a murder that was intended to intimidate the public or influence the government.

Muhammad's attorneys have said there is no evidence he was responsible for the sniper shootings.

Conway recounted the testimony of a British sniper, the first of 136 prosecution witnesses.

"One thing that he said was the assumption that a sniper was a single person could not be further from the truth," Conway said.

He presented a slide that a British army official had shown during the trial, reading the words "basic sniper team" along with "primary shooter" and "observer/spotter."

"Who do we think was the captain of this killing team?" Conway asked. "He's sitting right in front of you."

Conway said Muhammad altered his 1990 Chevrolet Caprice to turn it into a sniper's "urban hide" and "killing machine."

He said Muhammad put dark tint on the windows, "sawed out" the fire wall between the rear seat and the trunk and spray-painted the inside lid of the trunk so it would not reflect light.

Pointing to Muhammad, Conway said, "It was a diabolical move, a plan executed by this individual to convert this vehicle into an instrument of death."

As Conway traced through the litany of shootings blamed on the snipers, he punctuated his remarks with phrases like "Bang, another one bites the dust" and "He has his shot, he's got his prize."

The evidence, which included witness sightings of Muhammad and Malvo and their car near shootings, as well as DNA evidence linking Malvo to the killings, is all circumstantial against Muhammad. But Conway told the jurors, "You will probably never see a more compelling circumstantial evidence case."

Defense attorney Peter Greenspun argued there was no evidence that Muhammad and Malvo acted as a team.

He expressed sympathies for the families of the sniper victims, but urged jurors to put out of their minds the graphic photographs of the victims the prosecution had shown.

"The law requires you to keep an open mind," Greenspun said. "How can you keep an open mind looking at those pictures?"

The defense presented only five witnesses during the trial.

Greenspun also said it was up to the jury to decide the definition of "immediate perpetrator" and "principal in the first degree." He said the terms should only apply to "that person who has the immediate ability to stop this from happening."


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