RICHMOND, Va. -- John Allen Muhammad's lawyers argued before the state Supreme Court yesterday that the convicted sniper cannot be sentenced to death under a Virginia law because he did not pull the trigger in the October 2002 killing spree.
Muhammad was sentenced to die after being convicted of two counts of capital murder last year in the shooting of Dean Harold Meyers near Manassas.
Prosecutors had argued that Muhammad and cohort Lee Boyd Malvo formed a sniper team and were thus equally culpable -- even though Malvo said he pulled the trigger.
Defense lawyer Peter Greenspun contended that Virginia law allows the death penalty only for the triggerman in such cases, and that Muhammad should receive a life sentence instead.
But Justice Donald Lemons challenged Greenspun's argument, likening the sniper killings to a previous murder case in which two defendants were deemed eligible for the death penalty -- one for smashing the victim's head with a rock, the other for holding the victim down.
The second count of capital murder on which Muhammad was convicted alleges the sniper killings were an act of terrorism. Under that law, Muhammad would not have to be the triggerman to get the death penalty.
But his lawyers asserted that the law was improperly applied to Muhammad when its clear intent was to punish terrorism such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Muhammad's attorneys also argued that at the respective trials of Muhammad and Malvo, prosecutors presented contradictory theories.
Defense lawyer Jonathan Shapiro said Muhammad's prosecutors portrayed Muhammad as a manipulator who molded Malvo into a killer, while Malvo's prosecutors depicted Malvo as a willful young man free of Muhammad's influence. But Senior Assistant Attorney General Robert Harris said Malvo's prosecutors were forced to counter an insanity defense in which Malvo contended he had been brainwashed by Muhammad.
The court is expected to rule on the appeal in January.