JARRATT, Va. — Virginia’s governor refused to spare the life of John Allen Muhammad and cleared the way for his execution tonight for the sniper attacks in 2002 that left 10 dead and spread such fear people were afraid to go shopping, cut grass or pump gas.
The three-week killing spree in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., was carried out with a teenage accomplice who is serving life in prison without parole. Muhammad, 48, is scheduled to die by injection at 6 p.m. PST after he exhausted his court appeals and Gov. Tim Kaine denied clemency.
Muhammad’s attorneys had asked Kaine to commute his sentence to life in prison because they said he was severely mentally ill.
“I think crimes that are this horrible, you just can’t understand them, you can’t explain them,” said Kaine, a Democrat known for carefully considering death penalty cases. “They completely dwarf your ability to look into the life of a person who would do something like this and understand why.”
Muhammad was sentenced to death for killing Dean Harold Meyers at a gas station in northern Virginia. He and his accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, also were suspected of fatal shootings in Tacoma, Alabama, Arizona and Louisiana.
Prosecutors chose to put Muhammad and Malvo on trial in Virginia first because of the state’s willingness to execute killers. He and Malvo were also convicted of six other murders in Maryland and both were sentenced to six life terms.
The death penalty was later ruled out for Malvo because the U.S. Supreme Court barred the execution of juveniles, who was 17 during the killing spree.
The motive for the shootings in the nation’s capital region remains murky. Malvo said Muhammad wanted to use the plot to extort $10 million from the government to set up a camp in Canada where homeless children would be trained as terrorists. But Muhammad’s ex-wife has said she believes the attacks were a smoke screen for his plan to kill her and regain custody of their three children.
Muhammad has never testified or explained why he directed the attacks that terrorized the Washington region, with victims gunned down while doing everyday chores. People stayed indoors, and those who had to go outside weaved as they walked or bobbed their heads to make themselves less of a target.
The terror ended Oct. 24, 2002, when police captured Muhammad and Malvo as they slept at a Maryland rest stop in a car they had outfitted so a shooter could hide in the trunk and fire through a hole in the body of the vehicle.
Muhammad had been in and out of the military since he graduated from high school in Louisiana and entered the National Guard. A convert to Islam, John Allen Williams would later change his name to Muhammad.
He joined the Army in 1985 and trained in Washington state as a combat engineer. He did not take special sniper training but earned an expert rating in the M-16 rifle — the military cousin of the .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle used in the sniper shootings.
However, his life was full of failure. He was twice divorced, and after serving in the first Iraq war, he could never find financial stability.
He opened a karate school but it didn’t last; neither did his car repair shop. The man who looked for self-discipline in exercise and Islam found himself living in a homeless shelter in 2001 and a few months later was accused of shoplifting food.
Muhammad met with family members in the hours before his execution but did not have a spiritual adviser, Virginia Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor said. One of Muhammad’s attorneys, J. Wyndal Gordon, described the convicted killer as fearless and insisted he was innocent.
“He is absolutely unafraid and he will die with dignity — dignity to the point of defiance,” Gordon said.
The families of those killed were ready for execution day.
Cheryll Witz was one of several victims’ relatives who planned to watch the execution. Malvo confessed that, at Muhammad’s direction, he shot her father, Jerry Taylor, on a Tucson, Ariz., golf course in March 2002.
“He basically watched my dad breathe his last breath,” Witz said. “Why shouldn’t I watch his last breath?”
Death penalty opponents planned vigils across the state, and some were headed for Jarratt, about an hour south of Richmond, for the execution at Greensville Correctional Center.
Beth Panilaitis, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said those who planned to protest understand the fear that gripped the community, and the nation, during the attacks.
“The greater metro area and the citizens of Virginia have been safe from this crime for seven years,” Panilaitis said. “Incarceration has worked and life without the possibility of parole has and will continue to keep the people of Virginia safe.”
Kaine, Virginia’s first Roman Catholic governor, has openly expressed his faith-based opposition to capital punishment, but promised as a candidate in 2005 that he would carry out Virginia’s death penalty law despite his beliefs.
In September, Kaine delayed the October execution of a former Army intelligence worker from Maryland convicted of killing a northern Virginia couple, saying he needed more time to consider the case. That execution is scheduled for next week.