Page last updated at 08:52 GMT, Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Sniper executed with lethal precision

By Vanessa Buschschluter
BBC News, Greensville Correctional Center, Virginia

It seems to be all about timing. "Nine eleven" is the local time at which John Allen Muhammad died, Director of Communications at the Virginia Department of Corrections Larry Traylor said.

Recent undated jail photo of John Allen Muhammad
Muhammad joked his body would be kept "to make sure I'm dead"

Five minutes is the time it took for the cocktail of chemicals to work. He was given 15 to 20 seconds to make a final statement, but chose to remain silent.

Before the execution, the media had been briefed about the exact procedure.

"The condemned man is injected first with thiopental sodium, which induces a state of unconsciousness. The second chemical, pancuronium bromide, stops the breathing. And the third - potassium chloride - stops the heart," we learned from a statement sent by the Virginia Department of Corrections before even arriving at the prison.

And the choice Muhammad would have for his last meal?

"The inmate may select any meal, or combination of items, from the institution's 28 day cycle menu," another statement explained.

Muhammad chose "chicken in red sauce" and "strawberry cakes" his lawyer told us.

And there was a timing involved there, too. Muhammad would have to eat it at least four hours before the execution.

Punctually, at 2100 (0200 GMT), he was led into what is called the "death chamber". Six state witnesses and three representatives of the media were in an adjacent room watching the execution.

Relatives of the victims were in another room, this one darkened, "to protect their privacy," Mr Traylor said.

"He was strapped to the gurney, first by his legs, then his arms and chest," Jon Burkett, one of the media representatives present at the execution, said.

Bob Meyers
We appreciate the fact that there were laws in place that were appropriate… and it came to a conclusion and the process worked
Bob Meyers, relative of victim

At 2107 his breathing quickened, at 2108 he was motionless, and at 2111 he was pronounced dead.

Once death had been pronounced, the curtains separating the "death chamber" from the viewing rooms were drawn and the witnesses escorted out of the room.

Muhammad's body was driven to the medical examiner's office, where it will be held for two days.

His lawyer told us his client had been joking about the procedure.

"'They'll hold my body for two days to make sure I'm dead', is what he told me," J Wyndal Gordon said.

Mr Traylor did not reveal where Muhammad's last journey would take him. "The condemned man can make requests for what will happen to his body, but that is private."

What is clear is that the journey that led him to Greensville Correctional Center began seven years earlier a couple of hours' drive north on Interstate 95.

For three weeks, Muhammad spread fear and terror around the DC area, targeting random residents with his then teenage accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo.

The two had even adapted their car, cutting a hole in its bodywork to fit their rifle.

Rebecca Curtis, 26, was living in Fairfax County at the time. One of the shootings happened just three blocks from her house. She remembers the fear she felt, but does not think the death penalty is the right answer.

"I saw what everyone else is so afraid of and this doesn't change it, this doesn't fix it, this doesn't solve anything."

'No conscience'

Terri Steinberg is in tears, hugging fellow anti-death penalty campaigners at a vigil outside the prison.

1 and 2: A shot is fired in Aspen Hill, north of Washington DC on 2 October. James D Martin is later killed in Wheaton.
3, 4, 5, 6 and 7: The following day, James "Sonny" Buchanan, Prenkumar Walekar, Sarah Ramos, Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera and Pascal Charlot are all shot dead in areas to the north of the city.
8: On 4 October a woman is shot at a mall in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
9: On 7 October a 13-year-old schoolboy is shot at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Prince George County.
10 and 11: Dean Harold Meyers is shot dead in Manassas, Virginia on 9 October. Two days later, Kenneth H Bridges is killed near Fredericksburg.
12: Linda Franklin is shot dead at a shopping centre in northern Virginia on 14 October.
13: A 37-year-old man is shot in Ashland, south of Washington on 19 October.
14: Conrad Johnson is killed on 22 October in the Aspen Hill area.

"Thou shalt not kill," she says. "We've been safe for seven years since John Muhammad was locked up, and this was not necessary."

And, she says, she knows what she is talking about. "I had lunch at the Ponderosa with my three kids the same day the sniper hit," she says recalling 19 October 2002, when a 37-year-old man was shot in a parking lot outside the steak house.

"It could have easily been me and my family. But I feel that some of the money we spent killing Mr Muhammad would have been better spent helping our veterans, who're coming home with scars that are not visible and causing them to do horrible things, just like what happened in Fort Hood this past week."

But not everyone outside the prison is opposed to the death penalty. Bruce Berry is "here to see justice done to a man who was evil, had no conscience, and was killing people for no reason".

"He got what he deserved, and that young boy should have been right with him, because he was involved in the killings, too," he says referring to Malvo.

"They both should have died. Because all that Malvo is doing is wasting taxpayers' money, sitting there in prison."

Bob Meyers witnessed the execution. It was his brother Dean's killing for which Muhammad was being executed.

He is relieved it is over, he says. "It's just so sad. There's no winners here tonight. We're not celebrating. But on the other hand, we appreciate the fact that there were laws in place that were appropriate… and it came to a conclusion and the process worked."

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