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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Muhammad Guilty on All Four Counts in Sniper Trial

Aired November 17, 2003 - 12:02   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: An important moment in U.S. history right now, because as our own Jeffrey Toobin just pointed out, this was an incident, a series of weeks that terrorized all of us who lived here in the greater Washington, D.C. area.
Four counts, guilty on all four counts. Capital murder, specifically murdering Dean Harold Meyers at a gas station in Manassas, Virginia, in northern Virginia, just outside the nation's capital. The second count, terrorism, guilty. This is a new law that was passed after 9/11 that brings with it capital punishment as well. Guilty as far as terrorizing an entire area. A third count, conspiracy, guilty. John Allen Muhammad conspiring, allegedly, with Lee Boyd Malvo, his younger colleague. And four, guilty in the fourth count, guilty, use of firearm in the commission of a felony.

Jeffrey Toobin is on the phone. You have been watching this trial with us going forward. The next step, let's move it forward a little bit, the penalty phase. The first two counts, capital murder, terrorism do carry the death penalty. Is there any real significant doubt that these jurors and the others involved in this process are going to say he deserves to die?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Boy, you know I am always wary of making predictions, but this is certainly a case where given the volume of evidence, given the magnitude of the crime, given the speed of the verdict in the penalty phase, one would certainly 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 and that could stop it. So it certainly looks like a death penalty case based on everything that has happened so far, but you never know.

BLITZER: In these kinds of 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 rather grisly term, but lawyers call juries in this case death qualified. What that means is that every juror has said I could imposed the death penalty under the right circumstances. Any juror who says I am morally opposed to the death penalty and could not impose it, those jurors are disqualified.

That's actually a very controversial issue. Opponents of the death penalty, defense lawyers in general, feel that skews the jury pool towards a more prosecution orientation. But the rule is if it is a death qualified jury, as this one is, every jury has said that they have no moral qualms about imposing the death penalty.

BLITZER: And as far as the impact that these guilty verdicts, all four counts, will have on John Allen Muhammad, briefly talk about the impact it could have on his younger associate, Lee Boyd Malvo, only 18 years old. He was 17 years old at the times of this sniper spree that was going on in the greater Washington area. How do you separate these two?

TOOBIN: Well I think this is going to be a real challenge for the judge presiding over the Malvo case to, in the first place, to try to keep this information away from the jurors. They are instructed not to -- not to listen to any coverage of the whole sniper case. But also, even if they know about it, to tell them look, one case has nothing to do with the other. That's going to be -- that's going to be a challenge.

I actually think it sort of cuts both ways if they -- if they find out about it, because, in one sense, a guilty verdict is a guilty verdict, which means that the two of them operated together. If Muhammad is guilty, jurors may well think Malvo is guilty. But Malvo's defense is that Muhammad was the chief executive officer of this terrorist operation. He was in charge. He was brainwashing this much younger boy. And in that respect, a guilty verdict might, in a curious way, help Malvo. But I am sure Malvo's lawyers are hardly celebrating at this news.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, we're now getting word that the penalty phase will begin actually in only two hours or so from now, 2:00 p.m. Eastern, the judge is going to begin what is called the penalty phase of this trial. For our viewers who may not be familiar how this is divided up, explain that to them.

TOOBIN: Well I also think it is just worth pointing out how Virginia works. I mean Virginia just has a different legal system than the rest of the country. It is northern Virginia that's known as the rocket docket, but the whole state really does move very, very quickly. And I would have thought that they would at least wait until tomorrow, but you know full speed ahead, as always, in Virginia.

The way penalty phases work is that the prosecution presents what is called aggravating factors. That is factors that make this case so reprehensible that the death penalty is required. The most -- the most well known kind of evidence is what is known as victim impact statement, and that is often very heart-breaking testimony from family members of the victims who testify about what the loss of the loved one meant.

The defense, on the other hand, presents what is called as mitigating evidence. In a case like this, it may include some psychological evidence. It may include evidence about Muhammad's background. It may include evidence, as the jury has already heard, that Muhammad was not identified as the triggerman in either the Meyers' case or any of the other murders. Those -- that is the kind of evidence that's likely to be presented.

BLITZER: And in this particular case, the jury deliberated, what, for about six hours. They deliberated on Friday for four hour, two hours today. It was -- under normal circumstances this would be considered a very, very speedy decision.

TOOBIN: Absolutely. This case is very fast. When you consider 130 witnesses to evaluate all their testimony in six and a half hours, that is very fast. But you know there are no -- there is no instruction manual for how jurors work. And if they are confident that they reached the right decision, there is no requirement that they have to sit around and just chew it over even longer. And frankly, as someone who followed the evidence fairly carefully myself, I don't have much quarrel with how long it took. This was a pretty overwhelming case.

BLITZER: And there's no doubt that he had competent attorneys, court appointed attorneys that worked with him that represented him. He had high quality defense attorneys, didn't he?

TOOBIN: He received excellent legal help. Remember there was this bizarre period early in the trial about a day when he represented himself. And I can't imagine that had much impact one way or the other. But certainly his lawyers fought that decision very, very fiercely, tried to -- tried to get themselves back into the case. I think they have perhaps their best opportunity when it comes to the penalty phase, because the guilt evidence was so overwhelming. But he did have -- he did have good attorneys. He had better attorneys than many people do who wind up on death row. His problem was not his attorneys. His problem was the -- was the overwhelming nature of the evidence.

BLITZER: And let's take a look back at that evidence, Jeffrey, stand by. Our Jean Meserve, who is inside the courtroom getting all the information for us, together with her producer, Mike Allers (ph). Let's take a look back and remember what happened in the greater Washington area just about a year or so ago.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The defense case was stunning for its brevity: just five witnesses in less than three hours, a striking contrast with the prosecution, which called 136 witnesses over 14 days.

PAUL BUTLER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: It's a very surprising development. The defense seems to be not that Mr. Muhammad is innocent, but that the government doesn't have enough evidence to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

MESERVE: The defense tried to undermine prosecution witnesses, who had placed Muhammad and Malvo, or their car, near the Iran Brown shooing at a middle school in Bowie, Maryland, the Dean Meyers shooting in Manassas, and the Kenneth Bridges shooting in Fredericksburg.

They also attempted to discredit the testimony of Muhammad's cousin, Charlene Anderson (ph). She had testified that Muhammad showed her a gun during a visit in the months before the sniper slayings.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And during that killing spree here in the greater Washington area, a total of 10 people were killed, 3 were wounded, allegedly by these two, but now John Allen Muhammad convicted, guilty all four counts.

On this terrorism count that he is convicted of, Jeffrey Toobin, this is a new law that was passed in Virginia after 9/11. There is some question that some legal experts have about its constitutionality. Talk a little bit about that.

TOOBIN: One of the issues that the Supreme Court has never resolved once and for all is whether you have to be the actual murderer to get the death penalty. And this terrorism law defines terrorism in a much broader way than the Supreme Court has ever upheld a death sentence for. I am not saying they won't, but it is -- it is really something new.

There are actual legal questions about both aspects of the charges against Muhammad, because in terms of the terrorism law, it has never been tested. It's a brand new law.

The capitol murder charge has what has traditionally been called in Virginia a triggerman requirement where the defendant has to wield the weapon. But the way the judge interpreted that and the way the judge interpreted the -- the way the judge instructed the jury in this case was that the Caprice, the car, was the weapon. Remember it had a hole in the back and a sniper's nest. And the fact that John Muhammad drove the car, that was the same as firing the gun. That will certainly be a focus of the appeal in this case. I don't know if it will succeed. I doubt it. But both sides of the equation do have legal questions about that.

BLITZER: All right, Jeffrey Toobin, thanks very much for that.

We're going to continue to monitor the reaction. The penalty phase beginning in just under two hours from now, 2:00 p.m. Eastern, John Allen Muhammad, 42 years old, convicted all four counts, terrorism, capital murder, conspiracy, and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. We will continue to watch, get reaction. We'll stand by outside the courtroom to see what people are saying as they emerge.

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