This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
People may argue about the death penalty, but no one’s likely to miss its latest recipient, John Allen Muhammad of Tacoma.
Those last two words are tough to acknowledge. But Tacoma was Muhammad’s hometown and he launched his offensive against innocent life from the South Sound. He separated from the Army at Fort Lewis. He lived for years on the East Side. He stole his chief murder weapon from Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply in the Dome District. He and his teenage acolyte, Lee Boyd Malvo, apparently practiced marksmanship in the backyard of an Oakland-Madrona house.
Under Muhammad’s tutelage, Malvo – by his own admission – claimed their first known victim in 2002 when he shot 21-year-old Keenya Cook at her aunt’s Tacoma home. Later, the two of them shot at the Temple Beth El synagogue on South 12th Street, apparently as an expression of Muhammad’s twisted, hateful version of Islam.
Muhammad and Malvo will always be remembered as the Beltway snipers who terrorized the Washington, D.C., area in October 2002. It wasn’t just the number of people they shot; it was they way they did it: over the course of weeks, and completely at random.
When a berserker shoots up a college campus or restaurant and is caught or killed, the body count may be high but the threat ends. Muhammad and Malvo, in contrast, kept a large population terrified for the better part of a month. As crime sprees go, this was as shocking as they come.
It’s worth noting, though, that Muhammad’s criminal career began with a much more common offense, domestic abuse. In fact, his 1999 breakup with his second wife, during which she took out a restraining order against him, may have been the catalyst that left him unhinged. Domestic cruelty is never to be ignored. Ironically, the murder of Keenya Cook was originally investigated under the direction of former Tacoma Police Chief David Brame.
Malvo originally faced a possible death penalty for his part in the pair’s murders. Fortunately – in our view – the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that the Constitution forbade the execution of killers who had committed their crimes as minors.
Malvo’s case makes a good argument for that decision. His crimes were heinous, but he’d clearly been groomed, dominated and schooled in murder by Muhammad, who had appointed himself the youth’s father figure. A teenager whose life has been hijacked cannot be held to the same standard of accountability as the hijacker.
Whether anyone should be executed by the state is one of the hardest of moral issues. But one virtue of the death penalty is that it ensures that a hardened killer will never again find new victims, even in prison. The world is better off without John Allen Muhammad.