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Lawyers Pile On Evidence in Sniper Trial

Prosecutors have called 75 witnesses in an effort to make a compelling circumstantial case against John Allen Muhammad.

November 02, 2003|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — After speaking his mind, John Allen Muhammad has retreated into silence. His blank face, half-hidden in a cupped fist, does not betray him now.

A parade of witnesses who said they glimpsed Muhammad and the car he drove have already constructed a powerful circumstantial case in the Washington-area sniper murder trial. Prince William County prosecutors have in two weeks raced more than 75 witnesses through their testimonies, and Muhammad's attorneys have had little success in discrediting their stories. More will be called to the stand this week.

Taking over after Muhammad acted as his own lawyer for two strange days, the sniper suspect's defense team has also had to contend with 300 exhibits of government evidence, ranging from the alleged murder weapon and Muhammad's blue Chevrolet Caprice to DNA and fingerprint evidence.

Only the prosecution's lack of eyewitnesses to the killings has given Muhammad, 42, a glimmer of a chance. Prosecutors have acknowledged that many of the rifle shots probably were fired by Muhammad's co-defendant, 18-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo.

But legal observers said that the horrific nature of the sniper killings and their number -- 10 slayings in the Washington area and three more in the deep South -- had created an atmosphere in which jurors would be more willing to accept indirect evidence of Muhammad's guilt.

"It's a circumstantial case, but it's a strong one," said Steven D. Benjamin, a Richmond lawyer and president-elect of the Virginia Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "By stacking up the bodies at Muhammad's feet, the prosecution is lessening its dependence on direct eyewitnesses. When you have so many victims, the sheer number has to have an effect on a jury."

Each day inside the narrow Virginia Beach courtroom, the sniper killings are repeatedly evoked by prosecutors who have designed a strategy both understated and graphic: In voices etched with heartbreak, loved ones recall the dead. Old snapshots of the victims are shown, brimming with life, then contrasted with grisly crime scene and morgue photos.

Witnesses recall sighting the old blue Chevy junker parked near crime scenes. Some nod at Muhammad as identification. Some pick out the younger Malvo, who is being tried separately but has been called into court for identification by witnesses. Forensic evidence -- from ballistics matches to telling DNA and fingerprint traces -- has been kept mostly offstage, but is expected to emerge this week.

The prosecution's most crucial sightings bracket the Oct. 9 killing of civil engineer Dean H. Meyers at a northern Virginia gas station. Muhammad is charged with Meyers' death-- and if convicted, he could face death by chemical injection.

Muhammad's rambling two-day stint as his own lawyer at the trial's start appears to have wounded an already uphill defense case, legal observers now say. When the 1991 Gulf War veteran blurted out during his opening remarks that he was at the crime scenes -- insisting only "I know what happened" -- Muhammad aided prosecutors who needed to place him in close proximity to the slayings.

"He did the prosecution's job for them, made it that much more difficult for his lawyers to question the testimony of prosecution witnesses tying him to those murder scenes," said William B. Cummings, a former U.S. attorney for Virginia who is now a defense lawyer in Alexandria.

And by failing to make any emotional appeals to the jury while "giving a very controlled presentation" as his own lawyer, Muhammad may also have reinforced the prosecution's claim that he was the mastermind behind the slayings, he said.

That could speed a death sentence if he is convicted. Under Virginia law, jurors first decide on Muhammad's guilt or innocence. If they convict him, they then have to decide in a second "punishment phase" whether to sentence Muhammad to death or life in prison.

"He looked the jury in the eye, and he left them with a black-and-white choice," Benjamin said. "If the jurors find him guilty of murder, that means they will have taken his own statements as a complete lie."

The prosecution is seeking the death penalty against Muhammad by using two murder counts in the slaying of Meyers that address separate theories. Under one count, Muhammad is charged with committing more than one murder in a three-year period. To win that count, prosecutors have to prove Muhammad pulled the trigger.

Although prosecutors acknowledged in opening arguments that they do not have that direct evidence, they argue that Muhammad was, in essence, the triggerman because he allegedly created the plot and gave Malvo the means to fire the rifle.

"They are arguing Muhammad was a principal killer in the first degree by using Malvo as a killing tool the same way he would have used an assault rifle," Benjamin said. "It's a novel interpretation."

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