John Allen Muhammad, the 48 year old “DC Sniper” who terrified the Washington area and became one of the biggest international stories of 2002 was executed by lethal injection last night at the Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia, USA.
The execution was carried out seven years after Muhammad and his then-17-year-old accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, terrified the population in the Washington area when they began a callously random and apparently motiveless shooting rampage from Baltimore to Richmond in September and October 2002. Many were injured and ten were killed – ordinary people about their daily business vacuuming a minivan, getting petrol or just sitting on a park bench.
In a country with scarily high death by violence statistics, this bizarre story got directly to our core. None of us, or so it seemed, was safe any more. Anywhere out there was danger, a crazy guy with a gun who just might kill you because you were there.
As with the arrest of any serial killer, there was mass relief when he was known to be behind bars and that he would stand trial with the full vigour of an American court.
Richmond, Virginia, one of the centres for these murders is a place I know well. When I was there it had the highest murder per capita rate of anywhere in the USA – something its civilised, old world, ambience made both surprizing and strangely spooky. It was when I was there, in the mid 90’s, that there had been a spate of drive-by killings, a new phenomenon to me at the time. I remember that horrible feeling that at any moment one of the cars so innocently passing me by, could contain a wild guy with a gun. None of us know, of course, when our hour is up, but walking the streets of Richmond certainly focused the mind.
I was making a film about murder when I was there and consequently witnessed some pretty grisly scenes and found myself, at least a couple of times, in real physical danger. It was there that I was given the invaluable advice that if someone tries to shoot you when you get out of your car, hide behind the wheel hubs and, if you have a gun, shoot back. I didn’t have a gun but I did have to use this advice when I was out on patrol with a Richmond cop.
So I had a taste of what the case of the DC Sniper was all about.
As it happens that filming trip also took me to Greensville Correctional Center where last night’s execution took place.
No one needed to tell me that the electric chair is an unpleasant and sadistic looking piece of apparatus, I think we are all familiar with its appearance. At Greensville, I was much more distressed by the bed where the lethal injections were administered.
I hadn’t really thought this through I guess. I know the execution wouldn’t have been a gentle visit to a cleanly laundered hospital bed by a gently spoken nurse but I was still shocked to see the cruciform construction with its straps and torture chamber looks. I have never supported the idea of capital punishment and these injections, not always as we now know, immediatley lethal, are no less barbaric than the electric chair, the firing squad or the hangman’s noose.
Greensville Correctional Center, with its perfectly civilised staff, filled me with horror. It was just so easy to imagine the cruelty involved in the long drawn out rituals of state sponsored death.
John Allen Muhammad’s last supper of chicken and red sauce and a piece of cake eaten in the room behind the death chamber provides a new vision of man’s inhumanity to man. Those seven years of expectation ending in the theatrical last days of preparation are in reality a protracted and paritcularly cruel form of murder. No civilized nation should have any part in it.
Muhammad’s murders happened across a number of states including Virginia so the Maryland Attorney General, in whose patch, the man was arrested, decided to send him to Virginia for trial knowing that Virginia is a no nonsense place as far as the death penalty is concerned. Muhammad’s teenage accomplice got life imprisonment but there was never any question of Muhammad’s fate.
When he went to his death last night, there were so many mourning relatives of his victims that there wasn’t room to house them all in the correctional center. There is no doubt in my mind about the horrible nature of John Allen Muhammad’s crimes but nothing can convince me that killing him does anything more than perpetuate an unacceptable concept of death as something that one human being can hand out to another.
I admire many aspects of the American federal system and I salute those states that have banned capital punishment but I wish that something could be done to bring Virginia and all the other death sentence states into the modern civilized World.
We in Europe, still believe that President Obama might just achieve that amongst many other changes which would restore his country in the World’s eye to its rightful place as an instructive illustration of the dignity of man.