The making of Lee Boyd Malvo’s plea deal

Neal Augenstein,

WASHINGTON – “I will testify against Muhammad, contact my attorneys to set up a meeting as soon as possible. Yours truly, Lee Boyd Malvo.”

The one-sentence letter, sent from the Montgomery County Correctional Facility six years ago, signaled the younger Beltway Sniper, already convicted in Virginia, was set to confront his former father-figure and co-conspirator John Allen Muhammad in his Maryland trial.

Muhammad and Malvo were each charged with six murders in Montgomery County.

The letter, dated March 4, 2006, was addressed to Katherine Winfree, then Principal Deputy State’s Attorney under Douglas Gansler.

Gansler is now Maryland’s Attorney General, Winfree his chief deputy.

“We were very suspicious of course, but we figured we might as well listen to what he had to say,” Gansler tells WTOP.

Three years earlier, Malvo had been sentenced to life in prison for the Fairfax County murder of Linda Franklin. Muhammad had been sentenced to death for the Prince William County murder of Dean Meyers.

Malvo was transported by sheriff’s deputies to Gansler’s office. Gansler closed the door.

“I had no idea. What do you say to a cold-blooded killer who’s sitting 6 feet away from you?”

To break the ice, Gansler asked the then-21-year-old Malvo how he’d been passing his time.

Malvo said he’d been reading Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.”

“We ended up talking about Peter Keating and Howard Roark — the two main characters. And I realized that sitting in front of me was somebody who was very highly intelligent, very articulate, very thoughtful, yet was a cold-blooded killer,” Gansler recalls.

In a series of interviews with Malvo and his lawyers, Gansler and Winfree had two goals: Gather as much information about the sniper spree as possible, and to judge Malvo’s veracity.

“He just felt really bad about what happened, and wanted to do whatever he could to make it right,” said Gansler.

Malvo was also anxious to confront his former svengali – Muhammad – who had befriended the then 17-year-old Malvo in the year before shootings.

“He was clearly not going to be able to make it right. He wasn’t going to bring any of those lives back, and wasn’t going to be able to repair the havoc he caused on the community.”

It soon became clear Malvo was prepared to testify against Muhammad, and plead guilty to six Maryland murders.

In their earlier prosecutions — Muhammad in Virginia Beach, Malvo in nearby Chesapeake — Virginia prosecutors painted the two as equal members of a sniper team, in large part to ensure they could be convicted under the commonwealth’s capital murder laws.

In the Virginia trials, jurors heard Malvo did most of the shootings, with Muhammad directing his protege when to pull the trigger.

Behind Gansler’s closed door, Malvo, for the first time, laid out specifics of the spree with facts only the killers would know.

“He was telling us exactly who did what, where and when. He was telling us who did the shootings at which murders. It was a full dissertation,” said Gansler.

Winfree and Gansler realized putting Malvo on the stand carried risk, in the event he lied to them.

Winfree has recalled looking Malvo in the eyes, and Malvo swearing he wouldn’t betray prosecutors.

“We ultimately decided the community and the victims’ families deserved to hear from Malvo,” said Gansler. “They deserved to hear exactly what happened and why it happened.”

Convinced Malvo would plead guilty to six Montgomery County murders, Gansler was also attempting to orchestrate a denouement to the sniper saga.

“Malvo was willing to, and we wanted him to, plead to every murder and every crime they’d committed across the United States,” said Gansler.

Malvo and Muhammad were suspects in shootings in Louisiana and Alabama. They were later connected with earlier Maryland shootings.

“All Malvo wanted out of this whole ordeal was to not have to serve his time at Red Onion Prison, in southern Virginia,” said Gansler.

Malvo claimed he was abused and items were stolen from him at the state prison.

Gansler felt it made little difference whether Malvo spent the rest of his life in Red Onion or a federal prison.

Under Gansler’s plan for a global plea, Malvo would plead guilty to to all of the pair’s unsolved crimes during a single hearing in U.S. District Court, in Washington, D.C.

The final shooting on Oct. 3, 2002, after four people were murdered in Montgomery County, was Pascal Charlot, in D.C. near the Maryland line.

In Washington, D.C. federal prosecutors handle criminal cases, meaning Malvo could be sentenced to a federal penitentiary.

First, Virginia prosecutors had to be convinced to give-up their hold on Malvo.

“Who knew how long Malvo was going to live, and at $30,000 a year to Virginia taxpayers we thought they would welcome having him removed from Virginia and sent to the federal penitentiary,” said Gansler.

Prince William County prosecutor Paul Ebert, who prosecuted Muhammad, and then- Fairfax County prosecutor Robert Horan, who’d prosecuted Malvo, were unwilling to sign-on to the global plea, saying a murderer shouldn’t dictate his accommodations.

“We couldn’t believe they didn’t want to do it. We still can’t believe they wouldn’t go with it. It was the right thing to do, and we weren’t giving up a thing,” said Gansler.

Unable to convince Virginia prosecutors to support the global plea, Malvo’s eventual plea deal called for him to plead guilty to six Montgomery County murders and be sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.

The Supreme Court had recently determined minors shouldn’t be eligible for the death penalty. Earlier, before the High Court ruling, jurors in Chesapeake showed mercy to Malvo, sentencing him to life.

Muhammad represented himself in Montgomery County Circuit Court, meaning he got to cross-examine Malvo.

“The back and forth between Malvo being questioned by the very person who engineered these crimes was astonishing to watch,” marveled Gansler.

“And Malvo never broke.”

Muhammad and Malvo were each sentenced to six life sentences in Maryland.

Muhammad was executed in Virginia in 2009.

Malvo remains in Red Onion Prison.

See the letter Malvo sent to Katherine Winfree

Lee Boyd Malvo’s March 4, 2006 letter

Follow Neal and WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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