Hats Off to Larry

Larry King Live takes a dramatic, emotional look at the execution of the D.C. sniper

Thank you, Larry King, for delivering—to borrow a phrase—a fair and balanced program Tuesday night on the execution of the D.C. sniper.

The king of talk has been criticized over the years for lobbing softballs at his guests, from Hollywood madams to wannabe presidents to disgraced preachers, who hope a wide enough grin will mask their sinning.

But Tuesday night, King’s simple, straightforward, “how do you feel?’’-style questions led to a powerful sixty minutes of television.

The entire broadcast of the Larry King Live show on CNN was devoted to the execution of the D.C. sniper, John Allen Muhammad.

It was a dramatic and emotional hour.

Muhammad, King said from his studio chair at the beginning of the program, with a darkened prison tower looming in the television screen, “is scheduled to be executed within these walls at any minute.’’

Indeed, Muhammad had just been strapped onto the execution table in the death chamber at the Greensville Correction Center in Virginia when the broadcast began at 9 P.M.

He was pronounced dead eleven minutes later at 9:11.

Charles Ramsey, the D.C. police chief at the time of the killings, said on the show that if anyone deserves the death penalty it was Muhammad, the mastermind of the three weeks of terror in Maryland and Virginia that left ten people dead in 2002.

“It should be over pretty soon,’’ Ramsey said before a prison official announced Muhammad had been put to death. “And he should be shaking hands with Satan.’’

But when the King broadcast was over, even the execution of the D.C. sniper did not seem so black and white.

King asked Bob Meyers, whose brother, Dean Meyers, 53, was gunned down by Muhammad Oct. 9, 2002, at a Virginia gas station, whether he had witnessed the execution.

Yes, Meyers said, standing outside of the prison. “Honestly,’’ he added, “it was surreal, watching the life be sapped out of somebody intentionally…I watched my mother die of natural causes but that was very different.’’

Did the execution provide Meyers with “any sense of closure?’’ King asked.

To a point, Meyers said, but the closure was “pretty much overcome by the sadness the whole situation generates in my heart.’’

He said he was sad that Muhammad, an Army veteran of the first Gulf War, “would get to a place where he did what he did and it had to come to this.’’

When the broadcast began and I saw who his guests were, I was concerned that only the pro-death and vengeance voices would get any air time. But that was not the case.

King was joined in the studio by Vernell Crittendon, who participated in thirteen executions when he worked as prison spokesman in California; Charles Moose, the former Montgomery County police chief, who led much of the manhunt for Muhammad; and Steve Moore, whose sister, Linda, was killed during the sniper’s spree.

“Your sister,’’ King said to Moore, “was killed by the man the state of Virginia just killed. What are your feelings.’’

Moore paused, searching for the right words.

“It’s another life gone,’’ he said. “This one was deservedly so.’’

But was Muhammad sane? King wanted to know. The sniper’s lawyers said he was not, and the state was about to execute a deeply troubled and mentally ill man.

“Do you question whether this man might be insane and maybe therefore should not be executed?’’ King asked former chief Moose.

“I really don’t question that,’’ Moose said, adding that Muhammad and his teenage partner, Lee Boyd Malvo, had committed a well thought-out and horrific crime.

They committed random murder again and again, Moose said, in an attempt “to get paid’’ $10 million to stop the killings.

At one point, Ramsey, the former D.C. police chief, said he wasn’t “buying’’ talk of Muhammad being mentally ill.

“If he was mentally ill,’’ Ramsey said. “He just got a therapy session.’’

King didn’t press the issue of Muhammad’s mental health, but later in the broadcast he gave one of Muhammad’s attorneys, Peter Greenspun, a chance to bring it up again.

“Today, at 9:11, a very ill man was executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia,’’ Greenspun said, adding that Muhammad had had a nightmarish, abusive upbringing as a child but somehow fought through it.

Then Muhammad joined the Army. He served in the first Gulf War but returned home an even more troubled man, Greenspun said.

”“Peter,’’ King asked, “ how do you feel now?’’

“Frankly, Larry, I feel awful,’’ Greenspun said.

He said many people would be celebrating the execution of Muhammad, but others should “give that whole process a second thought.’’

He said millions of dollars were spent prosecuting Muhammad “as opposed to putting him in a concrete box for the rest of his life.’’

“It’s an issue that needs to be studied over and over again for a long, long time,’’ he said.

After Tuesday night, the next time Larry King takes up the subject, I know I’ll be watching.

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Don Terry is a 2009-2010 Encore Fellow at CJR. He has worked at the Chicago Defender, the Chicago Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the St. Paul Dispatch, and The New York Times, where he was part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for the series "How Race is Lived in America."