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Sniper case crystallizes opinions on juvenile death penalty

Discussion /

March 4, 2003 Posted: 1:50 AM EST (0650 GMT)
Lee Boyd Malvo, center
Lee Boyd Malvo, center  

A circuit court judge in Fairfax, Virginia decided Monday to prohibit the use of television cameras or still photography during the upcoming trial of suspected sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, aka John Lee Malvo. The judge was concerned that too much television coverage of the case could bias potential jurors in other related trials.

The decision came during a hearing when defense attorneys and prosecutors filed 13 motions in the case. The 18-year-old sniper suspect attentively watched the proceedings. His attorneys were granted the right to screen potential jurors in small groups for sensitive questions. Defense attorneys were also allowed to hire three investigators to help them sort through the evidence in the case.

Prosecutors say Malvo was part of the "sniper team" that operated throughout the Washington, D.C. area last fall. Malvo allegedly worked with John Allen Muhammad, another sniper suspect, to carry out a string of attacks that spanned as many as six states.

According to prosecutors, one of the alleged sniper killings - the shooting of an FBI officer outside of a Home Depot in Virginia - was carried out personally by Malvo. Prosecutors allege Malvo was also involved in 12 other shooting deaths.

The prosecution is seeking the death penalty in Malvo's trial - a controversial move because the suspect was only 17 years old when the attacks occurred. Polls show that most Americans oppose juvenile executions. Many people have had their opinions shaped or changed by the rampage of sniper killings last Autumn.

John Tuell, who has worked with the Child Welfare League of America against the death penalty for juveniles, found his views tested when one of the sniper shootings took place just a few miles from his house. He recalled his personal efforts to avoid being shot during the time of the attacks last fall, saying he "zigged and zagged through parking lots."

But Tuell remains opposed to the death penalty for juveniles. He discounts the deterrent effects of the death penalty and says that teens cannot make judgments the way adults can. "When we choose to apply the ultimate sanction of death to those who are still in the mode of developing skills, I think it's an unfair practice," Tuell said.

Mike Flynn of the American Legislative Exchange Council is a Washington advocate for the death penalty, and he strongly disagrees with Tuell. Flynn pointed out that Malvo was only months away from turning 18 years old when the shootings took place. He said, "When you create an act of terror - these heinous acts which show just a complete disregard for human life - I think you do have to face the ultimate punishment."

Though 22 states allow capital punishment for crimes committed at ages 16 or 17, only a few of them, including Virginia, have actually carried out such executions. CNN's Jeanne Meserve cited that fact as one of the reasons Virginia was chosen as the venue for Malvo's prosecution.

Prince William County prosecutor Paul Ebert said that capital punishment "is reserved for the worst of the worst." He added that, in his opinion, the suspected snipers would fall into that category if they were found guilty.

Malvo is charged on three counts: premeditated murder in committing an act of terrorism, premeditated murder of more than one person within a three-year period of time, and using a firearm during a murder. The next hearing in his case is set for March 31.

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