D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad and the death penalty

For anyone who lived in or around Washington, D.C. in October 2002, it was a time of fear.

Even though an airplane had stuck the Pentagon a little more than a year beforehand, the fear of terrorism didn’t come from far away from the Middle East.

It didn’t come from living in an area that was an obvious target because it was the nation’s capital.

It came from doing tasks so ordinary that most of us don’t even give them a second thought such as filling up the car or going the grocery store.

During that month John Allen Muhammad and teen Lee Boyd Malvo stalked residents of D.C., Northern Virginia and Maryland with sniper rifles with random and reckless abandon.

All told 10 people died.

Malvo is serving life in prison without hope for parole.

Muhammad had a Nov.10 execution date set for him by a judge in suburban Prince William County on Wednesday for the murder of Dean Meyers at a Manassas gas station.

I lived and worked in Prince William County for a few years before moving in 1999. In 2002, I recall being in contact with friends and family in the area during the shooting. The concern for personal well-being was palpable.

In a little more than a month Muhammad will be executed barring appeals to Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and the U.S. Supreme Court which are highly likely to fall on deaf ears.

The execution will take place at the Greenville Correctional Center in Jarratt, a small town near the North Carolina border. This, too, is a place I’m familiar with.

On Dec. 3, 1996, I witnessed the execution of Gregory Warren Beaver at the prison while on assignment for the newspaper I was working for at the time. Beaver was sentenced for murdering a state trooper during a traffic stop near the state capital, Richmond. The killing of a police officer instantly makes the murder a capital offense, commonplace in states where the death penalty is legal.

I still vividly remember watching the execution, seeing Beaver strapped to a gurney, arms outstretched. It is not much different than watching someone fall asleep with the notable exceptions of a brief seizing of the muscles and the halt in the rise and fall of the chest.

Beforehand I was filled with the anticipation that seeing an execution first-hand would provide me with a clear sense of being strongly in favor or opposed to the death penalty.

It’s never happened, and I don’t say that to be callous or rude.

The main feeling I came away with which I still hold to this day is that the death penalty should be used judiciously and sparingly for the most egregious cases. This is borne out by Illinois’ moratorium on the death penalty stemming from vast abuses in the adjudication of such cases in the state.

Does the murder of a police officer under any circumstances cross that line?

Does the domestic terrorism purported by Muhammad and Oklahoma City federal building bombing mastermind Timothy McVeigh – who was executed in federal prison in June 2001 – cross that line?

I welcome your commentary and I will close by saying this: On the evening of Nov. 10 after the execution is carried out I don’t plan to raise a toast nor shed a tear.


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  1. brisonc3 said:

    The question, as I see it, is whether the death penalty is doing something that some claim only God has the right to do, which is to end life just as only God can begin a life. To answer that question we need to goto biblical sources. Did the old testament have rules and laws governing crimes where death was the punishment? Yes, it does, so death is an instrument of God’s justice that was carried out under the acting King of Israel at any given time. So we cannot say that the death penalty is against Old Testament law. As for the new Testament, Christ does ask us to forgive those that wrong us, even when the wrong is very severe. This is an admonishment to Christians only though, not to the world. Christ did not ask the Roman Empire to stop executions, only that His followers not kill when they were assaulted, or imprisoned. However, Paul had no problem with the idea that Roman law had the right to kill him if he had committed a crime deserving of death. Paul just disagreed that his actions of preaching the Gospel amounted to sedition of the Roman rulers and therefore were not deserving of death, but he walked to the chopping block anyway, knowing he had fought the good fight. As for contemporary society, why should the death penalty remain? My argument would be that there are certain crimes that only death is the just punishment for the crime and it is the duty of government to give out just punishment for a horrible crime. For some crimes, life without parole, still gives the criminal something precious, which is the ability to be alive and breath and experience. Something that was denied to their victims so how is this justice? Another point that is not usually brought up is the possibility of rising vigilante justice if the government refuses to give out suitable punishment for a crime. Citizens are going to be more likely to take the law into their own hands if they know the perpetrator is not going to receive the just punishment for the crime. Criminals like Gacy, Bundy deserved no less than death which thankfully they received. What would it say to the families of the victims of these criminals if execution was not carried out? I know many would say that execution is “un civilized”, but such an argument demands an immediate question, “how so?” If a full trial, with both sides presenting evidence that is then evaluated by a citizen jury and a verdict of Guilty is reached, how is this uncivilized? Let’s remember that God gave the power of the sword to the King of Israel and to the Roman Empire for that matter, to keep order and to let sinful man know that criminal actions will have a harsh punishment. It is the duty of government, not to show mercy, but to give out just punishment for a horrible crime. Government must do this otherwise it’s legitimacy becomes suspect.

    September 19, 2009

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