John Allen Muhammad was executed Nov. 10, but the sniper mastermind will never be held legally accountable for a killing in Tucson that police believe was a precursor to the sniper spree that left 10 people dead in the Washington, D.C., area.
Muhammad’s teenage accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, told detectives that they shot and killed Jerry Taylor from long range as he practiced chip shots on a Tucson golf course in 2002. Malvo said he and Muhammad stalked Taylor for days, even talking to him at a supermarket before the killing.
Muhammad was executed by injection the evening of Nov. 10 at a correctional center in Jarratt, Va., for killing Dean Harold Meyers at a Virginia gas station. Pima County prosecutors declined to prosecute Muhammad or Malvo for Taylor’s killing.
Malvo has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in Virginia and Maryland, but he wasn’t prosecuted for Taylor’s killing because Arizona authorities gave him immunity for his confession.
Besides the fear that bringing Muhammad to Arizona would hinder Virginia’s prosecution, the costs involved and the lack of overwhelming evidence posed challenges, said Rick Unklesbay, chief trial counsel at the Pima County attorney’s office.
Plus, “There’s only so much you can do to prosecute one individual for multiple crimes,” Unklesbay said. “Ultimately, justice is being served in Virginia.”
Muhammad also was executed much sooner than he probably would have in Arizona, Unklesbay said.
Muhammad was convicted six years ago, while executions for inmates on Arizona’s death row can take decades before they’re allowed to proceed. Unklesbay blamed the delays on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which prosecutors often label as too liberal.
Jerry Taylor’s daughter, Cheryll Witz, traveled from Tucson to Virginia to watch Muhammad’s execution.
“I hope he suffers,” she said. “I think lethal injection is too easy. He’s not even going to feel it. … Let him feel his organs shutting down.”
She said she wanted to watch the execution not so much for closure – she got some measure of that when Malvo confessed. Muhammad’s execution provides some sense of justice, she said.
“He basically watched my dad breathe his last breath,” Witz said. “Why shouldn’t I watch his last breath?”
The death penalty isn’t an option for Malvo because the U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of juvenile criminals, and he had just turned 17 when Taylor was killed.
Tucson police Sgt. Kevin Hall said his agency followed up on some details of Malvo’s confession but there were inconsistencies that couldn’t be corroborated.
For instance, Malvo told police that Taylor’s murder was part of a hired hit, at least according to the information Muhammad gave him. Tucson police have rejected that motive, and Witz said she can’t think of anybody who would have had a grudge against her father.
“There was enough detail to feel confident that these were the killers, but there was certainly not enough detail to pursue prosecution,” Hall said. “The bottom line is there wasn’t enough in that confession.”
Hall said Taylor’s killing shook the Tucson area at the time because of its randomness, its location, and because Taylor was so well-liked by so many people.
“Anytime it’s a random act of violence it strikes a stronger note of fear in a community,” he said. “The fact that the community is at risk when they go out to hit golf balls on a golf course makes people much more fearful than if this was someone who trafficked in narcotics.”