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Sniper Case Suspects Come Face to Face in a Virginia Courtroom

The defendants -- Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad -- barely acknowledge each other during a pretrial hearing.

October 02, 2003|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

MANASSAS, Va. — It was only a glance, the barest of acknowledgments, that passed between John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo when they met Wednesday for the first time since their arrest in the serial sniper case nearly a year ago.

Then the two suspects in the killing spree that convulsed the nation's capital looked away, close enough to whisper, yet disconnected like uncoupled trains.

After a summer of legal sparring in advance of two separate murder trials, the sniper case was melded together again Wednesday here inside a Virginia courtroom.

Appearing relaxed and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, Muhammad, 42, sat with his chin cupped in his hands, studying Malvo as if he were a sculpture on exhibit.

The 18-year-old was equally poker-faced as he was led into court wearing a pale blue shirt and khaki pants. Malvo looked everywhere except at the man once described as his mentor.

The young man was there to answer prosecutors' questions during a hearing in advance of Muhammad's trial, scheduled to start Oct. 14.

Malvo acknowledged his name and age and said he was born in "Kingston, Jamaica." Then, Paul B. Ebert, commonwealth's attorney for Prince William County, asked Malvo whether he would "testify about knowing the defendant while in this country."

Malvo stole a glance at the older man as Muhammad stared at him, then looked away. Malvo's lawyer, Craig S. Cooley, brushed his shoulder and whispered in his ear. Malvo looked straight ahead as he indicated that he would not answer the question for fear of self-incrimination.

Twice, Malvo softly informed the court, "I assert my 5th Amendment privilege" -- leading Prince William County Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. to schedule another pretrial hearing next week on whether Malvo would have to answer the questions posed by prosecutors. Cooley said that Malvo would attend that hearing as well, but that he would decline to answer to "any aspect" of relations and acts involving the two men if it "has the potential to be incriminating."

Malvo is to go on trial as an adult on Nov. 10.

Malvo's lawyers have insisted that Muhammad dominated the younger man during a year-long cross-country trek that took the pair from Washington state to the Washington, D.C., suburbs, where they allegedly shot 13 people, killing 10.

Malvo felt a "certain amount of trepidation" just being in the same courtroom as Muhammad, Cooley said Wednesday. "We intend to argue that there was a very strong degree of indoctrination," he said. "Bringing him [Malvo] into the presence of that person [Muhammad] is something that concerned us and probably concerned Lee."

Ebert insisted Wednesday that prosecutors needed to question Malvo to learn how much he would be willing to testify to once Muhammad's trial got underway. Malvo has been subpoenaed as a witness, but Cooley says he doubts the young man will take the stand.

Millette also ruled Wednesday that conflicts between two Virginia anti-terrorism laws would have no effect on whether a suspect could qualify for the death penalty.

Under one statute, a person who is convicted of murder that "intimidates" state residents can be put to death; but another anti-terror statute allows only for life imprisonment.

"When the statutes conflict, the defendant is entitled to the lesser of the two penalties," said Muhammad defense counsel Jonathan Shapiro.

But prosecutor James Willett argued that state case law would allow judges to opt for the statute with the more severe punishment. The judge agreed and ruled against the defense arguments.

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