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Sniper Defendant Acts as Own Lawyer

A rambling John Allen Muhammad tells jurors that evidence will show he wasn't linked to the deadly rampage in the Washington, D.C., area.

October 21, 2003|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Serial murder suspect John Allen Muhammad took over his own defense Monday, denying guilt during a rambling monologue that came after a prosecutor somberly traced the accused sniper's path through the suburbs of Washington, D.C., a year ago.

Muhammad's hands shook slightly as he faced the jury like a novice lecturer and insisted that Prince William County prosecutors had no proof of his involvement in the monthlong rampage that left 10 people dead in the capital region.

"Good evening," he blurted out at the start of his opening statement. It was just past noon.

For nearly half an hour after a Virginia judge agreed to allow him to act as his own lawyer, Muhammad, 42, meandered shakily through a discourse on the uncertain nature of truth. He quoted Jesus, he referred to Allah, he even launched into a long tale about his daughter's snack of forbidden chocolate cookies as he tried to show that authorities could not definitively link him to any of the sniper slayings.

"They wasn't there," he said. "I was, and I know what happened." Muhammad said that "the evidence will show I had nothing to do with these crimes, directly or indirectly."

In opening remarks that preceded Muhammad's statement, Assistant county Commonwealth Atty. James A. Willett said the defendant and his accused accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, had aimed to "terrorize and demoralize" the public. Narrating poignant thumbnail portraits of 12 victims, including two killed in the South, Willett said the prosecution would speak for the terrified "nameless and faceless" residents of the entire District of Columbia area.

Muhammad's early-morning move to replace his court-appointed defense lawyers appeared to come as a surprise to Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. and trial lawyers in the case. Millette's reluctant decision to grant Muhammad's request plunged the detailed strategies of his defense team into a freefall. The decision came quickly at the start of the session, and the judge offered no explanation.

Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to represent themselves, though judges can deny such requests under certain narrow circumstances.

Defense lawyers Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro were reduced to acting as "standby attorneys" allowed only to advise Muhammad. They whispered with him at times, but spent much of the day slumped in their seats at the defense table, watching dejectedly as the defendant stumbled on.

Muhammad's wandering line of questioning and his legal inexperience could distance the jury and potentially undermine some of his post-trial legal appeals, courtroom observers warned. "This turns what should have been a serious legal case into a circus," said Lisa B. Kemler, a veteran defense lawyer in Alexandria, Va.

Muhammad, a 1991 Gulf War veteran turned drifter, could face the death penalty if he is convicted of killing Dean Harold Meyers, a 53-year-old civil engineer who was gunned down at a northern Virginia gas station last October.

Felled by a long-range rifle blast as he pumped gas in the town of Manassas, Meyers was the seventh victim to die.

Muhammad provided no evidence beyond his own assertion of innocence. But he asked the jury to listen closely to the facts, saying, "my life and my son's life is on the line." Muhammad was apparently referring to Malvo, who is not related to him. After repeated references to his "son" during the day, Millette finally ordered Muhammad to refer to Malvo by his name only.

Despite his mistakes, Muhammad seemed energized after sitting in near-silence during months of pretrial hearings. But befuddled by court procedures, he compensated by playing lawyer, trying to sound decisive as he stood up repeatedly to object. At each interruption, the scowling head of the prosecution team, county Commonwealth Atty. Paul B. Ebert, protested.

Millette replied with weary sighs, repeatedly admonishing Muhammad to operate within the bounds of the law. The judge had warned Muhammad earlier that he reserved the right to restore Greenspun and Shapiro to the case if the trial plunged into chaos. For the first day, at least, Millette tried to be patient.

During his opening remarks, Muhammad tried haltingly to explore the nature of truth, insisting that the government's facts could not stand up to his own. He said he would be found innocent, "praise to Allah," and quoted Jesus, saying, "Ye shall know the truth."

Muhammad told of how he once almost punished his youngest daughter, Taalibah, now 10, for disobediently eating cookies -- until it turned out she was not at fault. Muhammad told the jurors that the "truths" advanced by prosecutors were just as unreliable.

Appearing slightly stiff in his olive-colored suit and gray tie, Muhammad spoke calmly as he cross-examined a British Army sniper expert. He knitted his brows and pounded the top of a lectern, seemingly trying to sound like a confident television lawyer even as he teetered on incoherence.

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