Law and Famous Trials

Beltway Sniper

What were the sentences in the Beltway sniper cases?

The October 2002 shootings that left ten people dead and three critically injured in the Washington, D.C., area set off a flurry of legal activity, which was still under way three years later. Two men had been found guilty by juries in separate trials in Virginia in late 2003: John Allen Muhammad (born John Allen Williams [1960–]) was sentenced to death, and accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo (a.k.a. John Lee Malvo [1985–]) received life imprisonment without parole (since he was a minor at the time of the shooting spree, the death penalty could not be applied in his case). In October 2004, under a plea deal in two other Beltway sniper cases, Malvo received other sentences of life imprisonment without parole and eight years on gun charges.

Muhammad and Malvo were arrested on October 24, 2002, in connection with the Beltway sniper attacks. The random shootings, which terrified suburban Washington and gripped the nation, began with a killing in a grocery store parking lot in Wheaton, Maryland, on the evening of October 2; within the next 16 hours there were four more shootings and four more dead. By October 22 there were eight more sniper shootings; three of the victims survived. People were targeted as they went about their daily business: pumping fuel outside gas stations, loading parcels into their cars in parking lots, arriving at school, and crossing streets. Tips led investigators to issue federal warrants for Muhammad’s and Malvo’s arrests on October 23, 2002; they were taken into custody early the following morning at a rest stop in Maryland.

The two men faced charges in several states as well as the District of Columbia. In addition to Virginia and Maryland, the pair had been tied to crimes in the state of Washington, where their journey had begun, as well as in Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia. In 2005, with Malvo behind bars for life and Malvo awaiting a death sentence, prosecutors still wanted the two tried in other cases, as insurance against reversals on appeals and as closure for the families of victims. But legal analysts questioned the high price of further trials; defense costs alone for Muhammad and Malvo, who received court-appointed (and publicly paid) defenders, were expected to near $1 million.

The highly publicized sniper shootings added strength to the gun-control lobby. According to federal law, neither Muhammad nor Malvo could buy firearms; the weapon they used in their deadly spree was shoplifted from a Tacoma, Washington, gun store. The store owner and the gun manufacturer were named in a civil suit by the Legal Action Project of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence on behalf of the victims and their families. In 2004 a $2.5 million settlement was reached in the case.


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