CHESAPEAKE, Va. - Teenage sniper Lee Boyd Malvo was spared by a jury Tuesday from joining his mentor John Allen Muhammad on death row after his lawyers argued that he was an impressionable boy who fell under Muhammad's murderous spell.
The judge must impose life without parole when Malvo is formally sentenced March 10 for his part in the three-week reign of terror that left 10 people dead in and around the nation's capital in October 2002.
Malvo, 18, wearing a blue sweater that made him look like a schoolboy, sat expressionless, his elbows on the defense table.
The jury took 8 1/2 hours over two days to decide his fate.
The trial was "an extremely difficult journey for everyone," jury foreman Jim Wolfcale said after the verdict. "This case was both mentally challenging and emotionally exhausting."
Wolfcale, reading from a statement as six other jurors stood by, added that the jury felt "heartfelt sympathy" for the victims' family and friends. The other jurors declined comment.
Wolfcale did not discuss why the jury decided on life, but prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed that Malvo's youth played a major role.
Prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr. said afterward that Malvo was "very lucky that he looks a lot younger than he is." And he suggested the timing of the deliberations just days before Christmas affected the jury.
"We used to have a theory when I was a very young prosecutor that whatever you do, don't try one on Christmas week," Horan said.
Defense attorney Craig Cooley said Malvo was relieved by the sentence, but "on the other hand he's 18, contemplating living the rest of his natural life in a penitentiary cell."
Last month, Muhammad, 42, was found guilty of murder, and the jury recommended the death penalty. The judge in that case could still overrule the jury when he formally sentences Muhammad.
Both men could still be tried in other shootings in Virginia and elsewhere around the country and could get the death penalty.
Malvo was convicted of murder last week in the shooting of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, who was cut down by a single bullet to the head outside a Home Depot. Malvo was 17 at the time.
Cooley had argued that Malvo had been molded into a killer by the charismatic Muhammad. Cooley said Malvo came to regard Muhammad as a father figure and was susceptible to the older man's influence because of his own father's absences and because his mother beat him and moved him constantly.
"Children are not born evil. When they commit evil acts, you can almost always trace the acts to the evil that has been performed against them," Cooley said.
Prosecutors had argued that death was the only appropriate sentence for Malvo.
Horan said that the killings were part of a scheme to extort $10 million from the government and that Malvo was the triggerman in most if not all the slayings. Horan rejected the notion that Malvo was less responsible for his crimes because he had come under the influence of Muhammad.
"They were an unholy team, as vicious, as brutal and as uncaring as you can be," Horan said. "You can talk about John Muhammad all you want. Maybe it was his plan. Maybe it was his idea. But the evidence stamps this defendant as the shooter. ... He did it. Not John Muhammad."
Several relatives of the victims expressed disappointment.
Marion Lewis, whose daughter Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera was shot and killed by a sniper bullet while cleaning her minivan at a Kensington, Md., gas station, said the jurors should be ashamed.
"I'm very disappointed in the American justice system," Lewis said. "Our society has now been sentenced to the responsibility of seeing to this man's health and welfare for the next 30 or 40 years, and that's unconscionable."
The defendant's mother, reached by phone in Malvo's native Jamaica, expressed her appreciation to the jury. "I knew he would get life because of the length of the trial," Una James said. "I thank God that they spared his life."
Malvo's father said the jury's recommendation was the lesser of two evils. "It's better than taking his life," Leslie Malvo said.
The jury consisted of eight women and four men, eight whites and four blacks. The foreman was a 41-year-old minister, and four others had occupations connected to education. Two were homemakers.
At the trial, the defense had presented an insanity defense, claiming Muhammad had so brainwashed Malvo with his notions of black nationalism, racism and revolutionary violence that the teenager was unable to tell right from wrong. Malvo and Muhammad are black.
Though the argument failed in the guilt-or-innocence part of the trial, it was central to the penalty phase.
Malvo was convicted of two counts of capital murder: one alleging Franklin's slaying was part of a series of murders, the other alleging the killing was intended to terrorize the population. The second law was passed after Sept. 11. Both counts could have brought the death penalty.
The jurors found that prosecutors proved both aggravating factors needed to impose a death sentence: that Malvo poses a future danger and that his crimes were "outrageously or wantonly vile." But such a finding does not require a death penalty, and the jury decided he did not deserve to die.
The panel also recommended that Malvo be fined $200,000.