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Associated Press/Virginia Department of Corrections

Empathy or vengeance?

Crime | Varying news accounts show mixed emotions as the D.C. sniper faces execution

WASHINGTON-Americans' minds now are on the 13 shot and killed at Fort Hood in Texas, but people in the area surrounding the nation's capital and elsewhere are thinking of the 13 people John Allen Muhammad allegedly shot here over the course of three terrifying weeks in 2002-10 died, three survived. Muhammad, known as the D.C. sniper, is set to die by lethal injection Tuesday in Virginia at 9 p.m.

Muhammad was sentenced to death for killing Dean Harold Meyers as he pumped gas at a Manassas, Va., service station on Oct. 9, 2002. Muhammad's teenage accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, was sentenced to life in prison in a separate case. The two randomly picked strangers going about mundane tasks-a mom taking a baby seat out of a car to vacuum, a 13-year-old on his way to school-and shot them through a hole cut in the trunk of their car.

Residents who remember those three weeks describe one emotion: fear. Children didn't play on playgrounds. Adults zigzagged as they walked across parking lots in order to avoid being targets. People stayed in their cars while gas pumped.

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When authorities apprehended Muhammad and Malvo, a wave of relief spread. But in the time leading up to Muhammad's execution Tuesday night, local news showed conflicting emotions about the criminal. Some family members of victims traveled across the country to watch the execution, saying they would administer the injection themselves if they had the chance. Others didn't want to remember what had happened. The conservative-leaning Washington Timespolled readers to see if they opposed the death penalty-73 percent said they did. One friend I spoke to casually described the fierce anger he harbored toward Muhammad-for the threat the spree posed to this man's son while he was at school.

News accounts show the mixed emotions of locals about how to talk about an event that left memories similar to a terrorist attack.

"Meet the man who prosecuted the D.C. sniper," read the headline of a Nov. 9 Associated Press piece printed in The Washington Times.

"Detecting glimpses of humanity in D.C. sniper," read the headline of a Nov. 10 Washington Post piece, profiling the duo of defense lawyers who "have been working tirelessly to save Muhammad's life." While the lawyers condemned his crimes, they said he's not the monster that people make him out to be. They argued Muhammad should be spared execution because he suffers from mental illness. The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine also declined to intervene.

"There's justice and there's catharsis due the people who loved the 10 who died in Muhammad's shooting spree," wrote Washington Examinercolumnist Harry Jaffe in support of the death penalty.

Paul LaRuffa, who Malvo and Muhammad shot five times in a robbery, survived but told The Washington Examiner that he wouldn't be going to see the execution.

The father of one of the victims, Marion Lewis, told the Post he was going to the execution to see "justice done." He added that he wished the method were less sanitized: "Let's give the guillotine a shot."

Bob Meyers, brother of the victim for whose murder Muhammad was convicted, told the Post that his family has "had tremendous grace from God in our lives. . . . Through that, we've been able to forgive."

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.


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