John Allen Muhammad (December 31, 1960 – November 10, 2009) was an American convicted murderer from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He, along with his seventeen-year-old partner, Lee Boyd Malvo, carried out the Beltway sniper attacks of October 2002, killing between 10 and 24 people. Muhammad and Malvo were arrested in connection with the attacks on October 24, 2002, following tips from alert citizens. Although the pair's actions were classified by the media as psychopathy attributable to serial killer characteristics, whether or not their psychopathy meets this classification or that of a spree killer is debated by researchers.
Born as John Allen Williams, Muhammad joined the Nation of Islam in 1987 and later changed his surname to Muhammad. At Muhammad's trial, the prosecutor claimed that the rampage was part of a plot to kill his ex-wife and regain custody of his children, but the judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to support this argument.
His trial for one of the murders (the murder of Dean Harold Meyers in Prince William County, Virginia) began in October 2003, and the following month he was found guilty of capital murder. Four months later he was sentenced to death. While awaiting execution in Virginia, in August 2005, he was extradited to Maryland to face some of the charges there, for which he was convicted of six counts of first-degree murder on May 30, 2006.
Upon completion of the trial activity in Maryland, Muhammad was returned to Virginia's death row pending an agreement with another state or the District of Columbia seeking to try him. He was not tried on additional charges in other Virginia jurisdictions, and faced potential trials in three other states and the District of Columbia involving other deaths and serious woundings. All appeals of his conviction for killing Dean Harold Meyers had been made and rejected. Appeals for Muhammad's other trials remained pending at the time of his execution.
Muhammad was executed by lethal injection on November 10, 2009, at 9:06 p.m. EST at the Greensville Correctional Center near Jarratt, Virginia, and was pronounced dead at 9:11 p.m. EST. Muhammad declined to make a final statement.
Born John Allen Williams in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Ernest and Eva Williams, he and his family moved to New Orleans when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer; she died when he was three years old. After his mother's death, his father left. Williams was mainly raised by his grandfather and an aunt. In 1987 he joined the Nation of Islam, and changed his name in 2001.
As a member of the Nation of Islam, Muhammad helped provide security for the "Million Man March" in 1995, but Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has publicly distanced himself and his organization from Muhammad's crimes.
Muhammad kidnapped his children and brought them to Antigua around 1999, apparently engaging in credit card and immigration document fraud. It was during this time that he became close with Lee Boyd Malvo, who later acted as his partner in the killings. Williams changed his name to John Allen Muhammad in October 2001. After his arrest, authorities also claimed that Muhammad admitted that he admired and modeled himself after Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and approved of the September 11 attacks. Malvo testified that Muhammad had indoctrinated him into believing that the proceeds of the extortion attempt would be used to establish "a camp in Canada where homeless children would be trained as terrorists."
Muhammad was twice divorced; his second ex-wife, Mildred Muhammad, sought and was granted a restraining order. Muhammad was arrested on federal charges of violating the restraining order by possessing a weapon. Under federal law, those with restraining orders are prohibited from purchasing or possessing guns, as per the Lautenberg Amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968.
Defense attorneys in the Malvo trial, and prosecutors in Muhammad's trial, argued that the ultimate goal of the Beltway sniper murders was to kill Mildred in order to regain custody of his three children.
In August 1978, Muhammad enlisted in the Louisiana Army National Guard at Baton Rouge as a combat engineer. Muhammad transferred to the Regular Army on November 6, 1985 and Muhammad's first tour was with the 15th Engineer Battalion at Fort Lewis in 1985. In 1991, he served in the Gulf War with a company that dismantled Iraqi chemical warfare rockets. In 1992, he was at Fort Ord, California, with the 13th Engineers, and in 1993 back at Fort Lewis with the 14th Engineer Battalion.
While in the U.S. Army, Muhammad was trained as a mechanic, truck driver, and specialist metalworker. He qualified with the Army's standard rifle, the M16, earning the Expert Rifleman's Badge. This rating is the Army's highest of three levels of basic rifle marksmanship for a soldier.
Muhammad served in an engineer unit during the 1991 Gulf War. Muhammad received the Southwest Asia Service Medal, the Kuwait Liberation Medal (Saudi Arabia), and the Kuwait Liberation Medal (Kuwait). He was honorably discharged from the Army on April 24, 1994 after 17 years of service with the rank of Sergeant. For his service in the Army, Muhammad received the following awards: Army Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Overseas Ribbon, Noncommissioned Officers Professional Development Ribbon, and Army Achievement Medal.
Beltway sniper attacks
Police followed a lead in which Muhammad or Malvo left a note at one of the shootings to tell the police to check out a liquor store robbery-murder that had occurred in Montgomery, Alabama. Investigators responding to that crime scene found one of the suspects had dropped a magazine with his fingerprints on it; these were subsequently identified as belonging to a 17-year-old Jamaican immigrant, Lee Boyd Malvo, whose prints were on file with the INS. Malvo was known to associate with Muhammad. They had lived together in Tacoma, Washington, for around one year, where Malvo used the alias John Lee Malvo.
Muhammad's identification led to the discovery that he had purchased a former police car, a blue Chevrolet Caprice, in New Jersey on September 11, 2002. A lookout broadcast to the public on that vehicle resulted in their arrest when it was spotted parked in an Interstate 70 rest stop in Myersville, outside Frederick, Maryland.
Muhammad was captured in Maryland, where most of the attacks and murders took place. Although Maryland sought to bring him to trial, United States attorney general John Ashcroft reassigned the case from the Maryland prosecutor Doug Gansler, a Democrat, to a Republican prosecutor in Virginia, Jerry W. Kilgore. Kilgore was planning to run for governor.
Virginia was viewed as the more likely jurisdiction to provide a death sentence, which was borne out by the Virginia and Maryland verdicts, and Virginia also allowed the death penalty for juveniles.
In October 2003, Muhammad went on trial for the murder of Dean Meyers at a Prince William County service station near the city of Manassas. The trial had been moved from Prince William County, to Virginia Beach, approximately 200 miles away. Muhammad was granted the right to represent himself in his defense, and dismissed his legal counsel, though he immediately switched back to having legal representation after his opening argument. He was charged with murder, terrorism, conspiracy and the illegal use of a firearm, and faced a possible death sentence. Prosecutors said the shootings were part of a plot to extort $10 million from local and state governments. The prosecution said that they would make the case for 16 shootings allegedly involving Muhammad. The terrorism charge against Muhammad required prosecutors to prove he committed at least two shootings in a three-year period.
The prosecution called more than 130 witnesses and introduced more than 400 pieces of evidence intended to prove that Muhammad undertook the murders and ordered Malvo to help carry it out. Evidence included a rifle, found in Muhammad's car, that was linked by ballistics tests not only to 8 of the 10 killings in the Washington area but also to two others, in Louisiana and Alabama; the car itself, which was modified so that a sniper could shoot from inside the trunk; and a laptop computer, also found in the car, that contained maps with icons pinpointing shooting scenes. There were also witness accounts that put Muhammad across the street from one shooting and his car near the scene of several others. There was also a recorded phone call to a police hotline in which a man, his voice identified by a detective as Muhammad's, demanded money in exchange for stopping the shootings.
Muhammad's defense asked the court to drop the capital murder charges due to the fact that there was no direct evidence. Malvo's fingerprints were on the Bushmaster rifle found in Muhammad's car, and genetic material from Muhammad himself was also discovered on the rifle, but the defense contended that Muhammad could not be put to death under Virginia's "trigger-man law" unless he actually pulled the trigger to kill Meyers, and no one testified that they saw him do so.
On November 17, 2003, by verdict of his jury, Muhammad was convicted in Virginia of all four counts in the indictment against him: capital murder for the shooting of Dean H. Meyers; a second charge of capital murder under Virginia's antiterrorism statute, for homicide committed with an intent to terrorize the government or the public at large; conspiracy to commit murder; and the illegal use of a firearm. In the penalty phase of the trial, the jury, after five hours of deliberation over two days, unanimously recommended that Muhammad should be sentenced to death. On March 9, 2004, a Virginia judge agreed with the jury's recommendation and sentenced John Allen Muhammad to death.
On April 22, 2005, the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed his death penalty, stating that Muhammad could be sentenced to death because the murder was part of an act of terrorism. The court also rejected an argument by defense lawyers that he could not be sentenced to death because he was not the triggerman in the killings. Virginia Supreme Court Justice Donald W. Lemons said at the time, "With calculation, extensive planning, premeditation and ruthless disregard for life, Muhammad carried out his cruel scheme of terror."
In May 2005, Maryland and Virginia reached an agreement to allow his extradition to face Maryland charges, but Muhammad was fighting the action legally. He was held at the maximum security Sussex I State Prison near Waverly, Sussex County, Virginia, which houses Virginia's male death row inmates. While awaiting execution in Virginia, in August 2005, he was extradited to Montgomery County, Maryland to face charges there.
On May 30, 2006, a Maryland jury found John Allen Muhammad guilty of six counts of murder in Maryland. In return, he was sentenced to six consecutive life terms without possibility of parole on June 1, 2006. Neither Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, or Washington (state) moved to try Muhammad, given his death sentence for murder in Virginia. In 2006, Malvo confessed that the pair also killed 14 victims in California, Arizona, and Texas.
On May 6, 2008, it was revealed that Muhammad asked prosecutors in a letter to help him end legal appeals of his conviction and death sentence "so that you can murder this innocent black man." An appeal filed by Muhammad's defense lawyers in April 2008 cited evidence of brain damage that would render Muhammad incompetent to make legal decisions, and that he should not have been allowed to represent himself at his Virginia trial.
On September 16, 2009, Muhammad's execution date was set for November 10, 2009.
On November 9, 2009, Muhammad's petition for review of his death sentence was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor wrote a separate opinion stating that Virginia's rush to set an execution date "highlights once again the perversity of executing inmates before their appeals process has been fully concluded," while noting that they concurred with the decision that the appeal ought not be heard.
In 2003, Malvo and Muhammad were named in a major civil lawsuit by the Legal Action Project of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence on behalf of two of their victims who were seriously wounded and the families of some of those murdered. Although Malvo and Muhammad were each believed to be indigent, codefendants Bull's Eye Shooter Supply and Bushmaster Firearms, Inc. contributed to a landmark $2.5 million out-of-court settlement in late 2004.
Testimony of Lee Boyd Malvo
In John Allen Muhammad's May 2006 trial in Montgomery County, Maryland, Lee Boyd Malvo, who is serving a sentence of life without parole for his role in the shootings, took the stand and confessed to a more detailed version of the pair's plans. Malvo, after extensive psychological counseling, admitted that he was lying at the earlier Virginia trial where he had admitted to being the triggerman for every shooting. Malvo claimed that he had said this in order to protect John Allen Muhammad from the potential death penalty, because it was more difficult to achieve the death penalty for a minor. Malvo said that he wanted to do what little he could for the families of the victims by letting the full story be told. In his two days of testimony, Malvo outlined many very detailed aspects of all the shootings.
Part of his testimony concerned Muhammad's complete multiphase plan. His plan consisted of three phases in the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore metro areas. Phase One consisted of meticulously planning, mapping, and practicing their locations around the DC area. This way after each shooting they would be able to quickly leave the area on a predetermined path, and move on to the next location. John Allen Muhammad's goal in Phase One was to kill 6 white people a day for 30 days (180 per month). Malvo went on to describe how Phase One did not go as planned due to heavy traffic and the lack of a clear shot and/or getaway at different locations.
Phase Two was meant to be moved up to Baltimore. Malvo described how this phase was close to being implemented, but never was carried out. Phase Two would begin with the killing of a pregnant woman with a shot to the abdomen. The next step would have been to shoot and kill a Baltimore City police officer. Then, at the officer's funeral, they were to detonate several improvised explosive devices complete with shrapnel. These explosives were intended to kill a large number of officers, since many of them would be at a comrade's funeral.
Phase Three was to take place very shortly after, if not during, Phase Two. The third phase was to extort several million dollars from the United States government. This money would be used to finance a larger plan to travel north into Canada, stopping along the way in YMCAs and orphanages recruiting other impressionable young boys with no parents or guidance. John Allen Muhammad thought he could act as their father figure as he did with Lee Boyd Malvo. Once he recruited a large number of young boys and made his way up to Canada, he would begin their training. Malvo described how Muhammad allegedly intended to train the youths with weapons. After their training was complete, Muhammad would send them out across the United States to carry out mass shootings in many different cities, just as he had done in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.
On September 16, 2009, Prince William County Circuit Court Judge Mary Grace O'Brien set a November 10, 2009 execution date for Muhammad. On November 9, 2009, the Supreme Court of the United States refused a last-minute appeal. On November 10, hours before Muhammad's scheduled execution, pleas for clemency made by his attorneys were denied by Virginia Governor Tim Kaine.
Under Virginia law, an inmate is allowed to choose the method by which he or she will be put to death, either lethal injection or electrocution. As Muhammad declined to select a method, by law, the method of lethal injection was selected for him. He was offered a selection of a last meal, which he accepted. J. Wyndal Gordon, Muhammad's attorney, told the Associated Press that Muhammad's last meal consisted of "chicken and red sauce, and ... some cakes".
Muhammed declined to make a final statement, and the execution began at 9:00 p.m. EST at the Greensville Correctional Center, Greensville County, near Jarratt, Virginia. According to the official statement of the prison spokesperson, the actual lethal injection process started at 9:06 pm EST. He was then pronounced dead at 9:11 p.m. EST. His body was cremated and the ashes given to his son in Louisiana.
In popular culture
- Muhammad is portrayed by Bobby Hosea in the 2003 film, D.C. Sniper: 23 Days of Fear.
- Muhammad is portrayed by Ken Foree in the 2010 film D.C. Sniper.
- Muhammad is portrayed by Isaiah Washington in the 2013 film, Blue Caprice.