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Toobin: Muhammad jury out 'unusually short' time

CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin

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(CNN) -- John Allen Muhammad was found guilty Monday of capital murder and three other charges in connection with the string of sniper killings that terrorized the Washington area last year.

A Virginia Beach jury deliberated a little more than six hours. The capital murder and terrorism charges carry the death penalty as a possible sentence.

CNN Anchor Wolf Blitzer spoke Monday with legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin about the verdict, penalty phase and possible impact on the trial of Lee Malvo, the second sniper suspect.

BLITZER: With the trials you have seen, you're surprised with the shortness of the deliberations?

TOOBIN: This is really unusually short, and I guess, as someone who's covered virtually all of the high-profile murder cases since the O.J. Simpson verdict, the juries seem to be going out of their way in these cases to deliberate for longer than the original O.J. jury.

If you recall, that jury, after a three-month trial, came back with a verdict in really less than a day and received a lot of criticism. I think in this trial, the jury is close to the line of too short a deliberation. But I think once jurors agree with each other, they really feel there's no more reason to talk about it anymore.

BLITZER: [Let's go] through some of the aspects of this trial. First of all [there was] the change of venue, taking it out of the Washington area [to Virginia Beach]. That was significant, because why?

TOOBIN: Well, this crime was unusual in many respects, but it was especially unusual because the whole region was the alleged victim. The charge of terrorism is a charge that says you tried to terrorize an entire community.

I think any of us who were around during that period can testify that it was terrorized, and so I think this was one of the strongest cases for a change of venue I have ever seen. Basically, every possible juror was a victim of the crime. So it had to be moved out of that community. I think the judge made the right decision.

BLITZER: This one got strange very quickly, as there was that time at the beginning of the trial when John Allen Muhammad said he was firing his attorney and wanted to represent himself.

TOOBIN: That seems like a long time ago. It is true that there was a period when he represented himself. [It] went [on] for little more than a day. I can't imagine that it's going to have much of an impact one way or the other.

It will be interesting [when] this case moves to a penalty phase. The fact that these jurors have heard his voice, heard him speak. They [have] a rough sense of how smart he, how articulate he is. Whether that will have any impact -- frankly, I doubt it. In a case like this, what really matters is what should matter -- the evidence.

BLITZER: Is there any doubt that jurors and the others involved in the process will say he deserves to die?

TOOBIN: You know, I am weary of making predictions. This is certainly a case where given the volume of evidence, given the magnitude of the crime, given the speed of the verdict ..., one would expect that there would be a death penalty sentence.

However, it is worth always remembering that when it comes to death sentences, all it takes is one juror to veto the death sentence, that could stop it. It certainly looks like a death penalty case, based on everything that has happened so far. You never know.

BLITZER: In these circumstances, when they select the jury though, don't they go through the prosecution in this case, asking specific questions to every potential juror, as to what their feelings are about the death penalty?

TOOBIN: Absolutely, that is called -- [it's] a grisly term -- lawyers call them in this case death-qualified. That means that every juror has said, "I could impose the death penalty under the right circumstances." Any juror who says, "I am morally opposed to the death penalty," those jurors are disqualified. Defense lawyers in general feel that skews the jury pool toward a more prosecution orientation. The rule is, if it is a death-qualified jury, as this one is, every juror said that they had no moral qualms about inflicting the death penalty.

BLITZER: The guilty verdict on all four counts ... talk about how it will affect Lee Malvo. He was 17 at the time of the shootings that were going on in the greater Washington area. How do you separate these two?

TOOBIN: I think it will be a real challenge for the judge presiding over the Malvo case, in the first place, to try to keep this information away from the jurors. They were instructed not to listen to any coverage of the whole sniper case. Even if they know about it, to tell them, look, one case has nothing to do with the other. That will be a challenge.

I actually think it cuts both ways, if they find out about it. In one sense, a guilty verdict is a guilty verdict -- the two of them worked together; if Muhammad is guilty, Malvo is guilty. But they [may] think Muhammad was brainwashing this much younger boy. In that respect, a guilty verdict might, in a curious way, help Malvo. I am sure Malvo's lawyers are celebrating at this news.

BLITZER: The judge will begin what is called the penalty phase of this trial. Explain it.

TOOBIN: I think it is worth pointing out how Virginia works. Virginia has a different legal system than the rest of the country. The whole state does move quickly. I would have thought they would wait until tomorrow. Full speed ahead, as always in Virginia.

The way the penalty phase works, the prosecution presents what is called graduating factors -- factors that make this case so reprehensible, that the death penalty is required.

The most well-known kind of evidence is a victim impact statement. That is heart-breaking testimony from family members, the victims who testify about what the loss of the loved one meant.

The defense on the other hand is presenting mitigating evidence. In a case like this, it may include psychological evidence; it may include evidence about Muhammad's background. It may include evidence that Muhammad was not identified in the [Dean] Meyers case or any other murders. That is the kind of evidence likely to be presented.

BLITZER: He had court-appointed attorneys who worked with him, who represented him -- a high-quality defense.

TOOBIN: There was a time he represented himself. His lawyers fought that decision very fiercely, tried to get themselves back into the case. I think they have perhaps their best opportunity when it comes to the penalty phase. The guilt evidence was so overwhelming. He did have good attorneys, better attorneys than many do. His problem was not his attorneys; his problem was the overwhelming nature of the evidence.

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