A sniper's thin mattress

Lawyers for 17-year-old Washington Beltway sniper suspect John Lee Malvo have complained that the mattress in his northern Virginia jail cell is too thin. Should we care? Maybe not.

Last week, a judge refused to order better treatment for Malvo after his lawyers whined that Malvo's mattress is too thin and that he has been denied reading materials and vegetarian meals.

The final indignity is that his jail cell has a checker table but no checkers. "This is about the right to human dignity," defense attorney Michael Arif told Juvenile Court Judge Charles Maxfield, who refused to intervene.

"To ask the judicial branch to interfere with the operations of the executive branch is difficult," Judge Maxfield said. "You're going to have to present a lot more evidence" of inhumane treatment to force intervention.

Prosecutor Robert Horan called Arif's motion "slightly short of frivolous" and noted that jail is better than living in an old Chevrolet Caprice, which was what Malvo and 41-year-old John Allen Muhammed were doing when they were arrested at a Maryland highway rest stop. I agree with Horan.

Even though some of my best friends are defense attorneys, this is just another example of how they sometimes try to manipulate the judicial system in favor of their unsavory clients. Malvo's lawyers are attempting to turn an alleged cold-blooded killer into a misguided juvenile offender, but their ploy won't work. It's like pouring perfume on a goat; after all is said and done, it's still a goat.

Malvo, an illegal immigrant from Jamaica, and Muhammed, a Gulf War veteran with radical Muslim ties, are accused of engaging in a shooting spree last month that left 10 people dead and three wounded in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. They are also charged with murders in Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana and are under investigation in Washington state. They are being prosecuted first in Virginia, which has a tough death penalty statute.

Fairfax County, Va., police say that Malvo has confessed to several of the sniper attacks and that his fingerprints were found on the main murder weapon, a "Bushmaster" rifle equipped with a sniper's scope. So judging from what we've been told, Malvo wasn't the innocent victim of a troubled older man; rather, he was a willing participant -- perhaps the lead shooter -- in a deadly multi-state killing spree. Malvo is accused of committing heinous, adult crimes and that's why he should be tried as an adult. And, if convicted, he should receive the death penalty.

Sometimes leniency is appropriate in juvenile murder cases, however, such as the recent Florida case in which two young brothers, aged 12 and 14, beat their father to death with a baseball bat. Derek and Alex King were clearly egged-on by family "friend" Ricky Chavis, who was acquitted in a separate murder trial.

The boys confessed and pleaded guilty to third-degree murder. They received sentences of eight and seven years, respectively, and I believe justice was done. But I don't see any mitigating factors in the John Lee Malvo murder case.

The fact that Malvo is an illegal immigrant brings one of my least favorite federal agencies, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, into the discussion. According to outspoken Fox News Channel commentator Bill O'Reilly, Malvo and his mother jumped ship in Miami in June 2001, but were apprehended six months later by the U.S. Border Patrol in Bellingham, Wash. The INS released them in Seattle, however, "in clear violation of federal law regarding the removal of illegal alien stowaways.... The law is explicit: Illegal alien stowaways are to be detained and deported without hearing." Yet, in January 2002, the INS released Malvo's mother on a $1,500 bond and set him free on his own recognizance. And the rest is history.

A Border Patrol official told O'Reilly that the INS simply didn't want to pay for airline tickets from Seattle to Miami for Malvo and his mother, who was finally deported last week.

O'Reilly was outraged. "So what we have here ... is a massive cover up of the Malvo thing by the INS and by the attorney general of the United States," he declared. "They don't want to say a thing about it because they know they were wrong and they know that what they did led partially to the murder of 10 Americans."

Apparently, the Border Patrol believes that Malvo's mother was involved in "some sort of custody dispute" with Muhammed, who describes himself as Malvo's "stepfather." In another weird development, federal investigators think that Muhammed was involved in a clever scheme to smuggle illegal immigrants from Caribbean islands to the U.S. when he lived on Antigua in 2000 and 2001.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that Antiguan police and the INS are investigating Muhammed for allegedly obtaining phony passports from corrupt officials by falsifying birth certificates and supplying the passports to people trying to sneak into the United States.

These are the kinds of people we're dealing with in the Beltway sniper case. If they have to sleep on thin mattresses, so be it! If the INS had done its job in the first place, more than 10 lives would have been saved.

Although it's too late to bring the victims back to life, it's not too late to make sure that the killers pay the ultimate price for their horrible crimes.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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