A prosecutor’s tale: Paul Ebert on pursuing the death penalty

Paul Ebert never lobbied for the sniper case. WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
'I had no idea what was going to be happening'

wtopstaff | November 14, 2014 1:16 pm

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Neal Augenstein, wtop.com

MANASSAS, Va. – Paul Ebert has sent more murderers to the death chamber than any prosecutor in the country, but he had never witnessed an execution.

Then he met John Allen Muhammad.

After Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested for their sniper rampage in 2002, Ebert, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Prince William County, knew there would be jockeying to see who would prosecute the duo first.

Muhammad and Malvo were arrested in Frederick County, Md., transported to Montgomery County, Md., charged federally and transported to Baltimore.

Once the two men were in federal custody, the Justice Department and John Ashcroft, the U.S. attorney general at the time, had to decide where they would be tried.

“I really didn’t care whether I got it or not,” Ebert told WTOP in an interview in his office. “I assumed sooner or later it was going to come my way.”

Ebert said he never lobbied Ashcroft for the case, even though Ashcroft had said he wanted the cases tried in a jurisdiction where the murderers would likely receive death sentences.

“I had said publicly that if we got the case, it appeared to me to be the type of case where capital punishment was appropriate,” said Ebert in his quiet drawl. “I said that from the get-go.”

Doug Gansler, the Montgomery County state’s attorney at the time, wanted to try the pair in the county with the most sniper victims. Maryland federal prosecutor Thomas DiBiagio also hoped to prosecute the snipers.

Yet, Ashcroft chose Ebert and Robert Horan, Fairfax County’s now-retired chief prosecutor, to try the first cases.

Ebert would try Muhammad for the murder of Dean Meyers, who was shot dead while pumping gas at a Sunoco gas station on Sudley Road near Manassas.

Horan would try Malvo in the death of FBI intelligence analyst Linda Franklin, who was shot after shopping at the Home Depot at Seven Corners outside Falls Church.

Muhammad was found guilty by a Virginia Beach jury in November 2003. Ebert said despite his reputation and history of delivering death sentences, he didn’t feel pressure to deliver the ultimate penalty for Muhammad, rather than life in prison.

“The jury’s going to do what they felt was just,” Ebert said. “You never know. It only takes one person who has second thoughts.”

The jury ended up choosing the death penalty. The judge agreed.

Ebert said he had been prepared to seek the death penalty for Malvo if Ashcroft had asked him to prosecute the 17-year-old sniper.

Malvo was prosecuted and convicted in Chesapeake, Va. Two days before Christmas in 2003, the jury showed mercy and sentenced Malvo to life in prison.

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of minors was cruel and unusual punishment.

Ebert said he believes Malvo’s sentence in Chesapeake spurred the high court decision.

“Had [the Supreme Court ruled] after he received the death penalty, I think there would have been more outcry against the ruling that juveniles were no longer eligible for the death penalty,” Ebert said.

In November 2009, Ebert attended Muhammad’s execution by lethal injection in Jarratt, Va. That night, Ebert told reporters Muhammad died easier than his victims.

“He just went to sleep,” Ebert recalled in a recent interview with WTOP.

Asked if he ever had nightmares after witnessing the execution, Ebert shook his head no.

Muhammad went to the death chamber asserting his innocence, according to his lawyers.

Ebert didn’t buy it – then or now.

“He never admitted he did it, never said he was sorry, no remorse,” Ebert said. “He certainly was a dangerous person and was able to terrorize this whole metropolitan area.”

Ebert said he took no pleasure in seeking the death penalty.

“If there ever was a case that justified the death penalty, this was it,” he said.

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