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Sniper mastermind sentenced to die

Judge calls 10 slayings `beyond comprehension'

MANASSAS, Va. -- Sniper mastermind John Allen Muhammad was sentenced to death yesterday by a judge who called the Washington-area shootings that left 10 people dead "so vile that they were almost beyond comprehension."

Muhammad denied any involvement in the October 2002 rampage, echoing a claim of innocence he made in his opening statement to the jury when he briefly served as his own attorney.

"Just like I said at the beginning, I had nothing to do with this, and I'll say again, I had nothing to do with this," Muhammad said. He told the judge he plans to appeal, and urged, "Don't make a fool of the Constitution of the United States of America."

Muhammad's teenage accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, is to be sentenced today to life in prison after a jury spared him the death penalty.

A jury recommended a death sentence for Muhammad last year, but Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. had the option to reduce it to life in prison without parole. Millette said the evidence of Muhammad's guilt was "overwhelming."

"These offenses are so vile that they were almost beyond comprehension," Millette said.

Muhammad appeared in an orange jail jumpsuit with a slightly graying, unkempt beard, in contrast to his clean-shaven, well-dressed appearance at trial.

About 50 family members of sniper victims were in the courtroom. One silently shook his fist as Millette announced the sentence.

"Justice has been served today," said Sonia Wills, mother of sniper victim Conrad Johnson, who would have turned 37 on Sunday. "I can go to my son's grave and wish him a happy birthday."

The sister of Hong Im Ballenger, allegedly killed by Muhammad and Malvo in Baton Rouge, La., in the weeks before the D.C. attacks, said Muhammad deserved to die.

"He killed so many innocent people," said a tearful Kwang Im Szuszka. "My nephew is 12 years old and he needs his mommy. . . . It breaks my heart." Muhammad, 43, was convicted of capital murder on Nov. 17 for the Oct. 9, 2002, murder of Dean Harold Meyers at a gas station near Manassas.

During Muhammad's trial, prosecutors described him as "captain of a killing team" and portrayed him as a father figure to Malvo.

The capital-area killings began on Oct. 2, 2002, when the pair shot a 55-year-old man to death outside a Wheaton, Md., supermarket. The following day, five people were killed in the Washington area.

Muhammad and Malvo were captured Oct. 24 at a highway rest stop near Myersville, Md., in a car that had been altered to allow someone to fire a high-powered rifle from inside the trunk.

A jury recommended life in prison for Malvo. In Virginia, judges can accept a jury's sentence recommendation or reduce it, but cannot increase it.

Defense lawyer Peter Greenspun pleaded for Millette to show mercy, saying his client is not inherently evil.

"I've represented guys that you look them in the eye and see evil," Greenspun said. "I've spent a lot of time with John Allen Muhammad and that's not him."

Prosecutor Paul Ebert disagreed. "I see nothing but pure evil," he said after the hearing.

Millette ordered that Muhammad be executed on Oct. 14, but that date likely will be postponed to allow appeals.

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