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Victims' families cheer sniper death sentence

'He deserved to die'


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MANASSAS, Virginia (CNN) -- John Allen Muhammad maintained his innocence Tuesday as a Virginia judge sentenced him to death for his role in the October 2002 sniper killings around Washington, but relatives of some sniper victims cheered the sentence.

"Justice has been served today," said Sonia Wills, whose son, Conrad Johnson was the last person killed in the sniper attacks. "I can go to my son's grave and wish him a happy birthday on Sunday. Conrad would have been 37 this Sunday."

A jury recommended death for Muhammad, 43, in November after finding him guilty of capital murder and terrorism in the death of Dean Harold Meyers, one of 10 people killed in the sniper attacks.

Before Judge LeRoy Millette pronounced sentence, Muhammad insisted, "I had nothing to do with this."

"You do what you have to do, and let me do what I have to do to defend myself," Muhammad told the judge.

But Millette said the jury was right to find that Muhammad would be a "continuing, serious threat to society" if allowed to live. He said he looked at other cases in Virginia for comparison, and "there simply are no other crimes" of the same magnitude. (Full story)

Millette set an October 14 execution date for Muhammad, but that date is likely to be delayed by an automatic appeal. Muhammad attorney Peter Greenspun said that process would take "several months to a year or more."

Greenspun called the sentencing a "sad day."

"Some people may gain some solace out of that, but I suspect that many others will not," he said.

But Kwang Szuszka, the sister of sniper victim Hong Ballenger, said she was glad Muhammad was sentenced to death.

"What Muhammad did was inhuman. He deserved to die. He killed so many innocent people," she said.

As of 2002, the average condemned inmate spent 7.3 years on death row before execution, according to state Corrections Department figures.

Virginia uses lethal injection to execute prisoners unless the inmate requests the electric chair, and has carried out 89 executions since the practice resumed in 1982.

Meyers, 53, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, was killed while pumping gas at a Manassas filling station. During the trial, prosecutors argued Muhammad was the mastermind of the sniper attacks, while accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo fired the fatal shots.

Malvo, 19, was convicted in a separate trial of another sniper shooting. A jury sentenced him to life without parole. His formal sentencing is set for Wednesday. (Full story)

Meyers' brother, Bob Meyers, told reporters, "There are no winners today."

"This was not a victory," he said. "But it was something that had to be done, and it was done right."

More than 50 relatives of those killed or wounded in the sniper attacks crowded into the courtroom as Muhammad's lawyers made a last-minute plea to spare his life.

Defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro said Muhammad was "not born a killer."

"If he is -- as the jury found him to be -- a killer, he was for 40 years someone completely different -- someone with barely a blemish upon his record," Shapiro said. He added, "Time can change that person back again." (Siblings describe violent upbringing)

But prosecutor Paul Ebert said Muhammad's actions "depict the worst of evil."

"The counsel for for defense says he sees no evil in his client," Ebert said. "I can't agree with that. I see nothing but evil."

Malvo was convicted in the killing of FBI analyst Linda Franklin. Her daughter Katrina Hannum testified at Muhammad's sentencing that her mother's death was "absolutely devastating." She said raising her own child in the shadow of that loss makes every day "a double-edged sword."

"Everything he does, she misses -- and that's wrong," Hannum said.

CNN producer Mike Ahlers contributed to this report.


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