This Day In History: November 17

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On November 17, 2003, ex-soldier John Muhammad is found guilty of one of a series of sniper shootings that terrorized the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area and dominated national headlines in October 2002. Police charged that Muhammad and his 17-year-old accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, killed 10 people and wounded three others during a three-week killing spree. After just over six hours of deliberation, a jury convicted Muhammad of the October 9, 2002, shooting of Dean Meyers while he pumped gas at a Sunoco station in Manassas, Virginia.

The first of the “Beltway sniper” attacks occurred on October 2, 2002, when five people died after being shot at long range over a 15-hour span in suburban Montgomery County, Maryland. Sniper-style shootings continued over the next three weeks—at gas stations and in parking lots within Washington, D.C.’s Beltway area and along Interstate 95 in Virginia. Local residents, frightened by the seemingly random nature of the shootings, which crossed racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines, crouched behind their cars while pumping gas and avoided outdoor activities. Schools held recess indoors and sports teams cancelled outdoor practices. The killers left a series of cryptic clues at crime scenes including tarot cards and notes and even called the police hotline, apparently trying to engage investigators in a dialogue.

The attacks came to an end when police arrested Muhammad and Malvo at a rest area off a Maryland highway. Their car, a dark blue Chevrolet Caprice, had been rigged with a hole in the trunk through which the shooter could fire a gun without being seen.

Muhammad, 41 at the time of the shootings, was a father of four who had been divorced twice. Although he had a clean criminal record, Mildred Mohammad, one of his former wives, had filed a restraining order against him. In 1985, Muhammad had converted to Islam, changing his name from John Allen Williams. He was reportedly a member of the Nation of Islam. In the aftermath of his arrest, police asserted that Muhammad had expressed some sympathy with the September 11 attacks and might have been acting out of anti-American sentiment. Later reports, which coincide with a letter he left on the scene of one of the murders, alleged that the murder spree was part of an attempt to extort $10 million from the government.

Muhammad served in the U.S. Army from November 1985 until he was honorably discharged as a sergeant in April 1994. He was a veteran of the first Gulf War. While in the army, he was trained as a marksman, qualifying as an “expert” with an M-16 rifle, the highest of the army’s three levels of marksmanship for an ordinary soldier. To qualify as an expert, Muhammad would have had to hit at least 36 of 40 targets at distances ranging from 50 to 300 meters. During his arrest, police found a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle—the civilian version of the M-16—in Muhammad’s car. All of the D.C. sniper victims had been hit by .223-caliber bullets.

In the six-week trial, the prosecution produced more than 130 witnesses and 400 pieces of evidence. Though their case was largely circumstantial—there was no eyewitness to prove that he had actually pulled the trigger—Muhammad was convicted on all four counts against him: the murder of Dean Meyers, murder with the intent to terrorize the government or public, conspiracy to commit murder, and the illegal use of a firearm.

John Muhammad was sentenced to death on March 9, 2004. He was executed on November 10, 2009. After a separate trial, Lee Boyd Malvo, who was a minor at the time of the shootings, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.