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Teen Testifies About Being Shot by Sniper

A bullet tore through his chest. His wounding triggered fears that even children weren't safe during the siege of violence last year.

October 30, 2003|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The moment Iran Brown dreaded passed in a split second, gone as quickly as a distant rifle blast.

Called to testify Wednesday about the high-powered gunshot wound that almost killed him last year during the Washington-area sniper shootings, the 14-year-old high school student exchanged a brief sideways glance with the man he still fears, John Allen Muhammad.

Biting his lip, Brown leaned into a court microphone, recalling the moment a .223-caliber bullet tore up his innards. "I felt it under my left chest," he said softly. A tiny chunk of the bullet that doctors extracted from Brown's thorax lay on a prosecution table nearby, bagged in plastic.

Brown's family had at first tried to prevent his testimony, voicing fears the teenager would be traumatized if he had to confront Muhammad in the courtroom here. After Prince William County prosecutors assured Brown's parents that he was needed only briefly, they agreed to let him appear.

The teenager's wounding outside his middle school in Bowie, Md., on Oct. 7, 2002, made residents of the nation's capital and its suburbs realize they were all at risk -- even their children.

Nearly killed by the high-impact bullet, Brown was saved by the quick thinking of his aunt, nurse Tanya Brown -- who drove him to a nearby medical clinic -- and the skills of Washington trauma surgeons who stanched his massive internal bleeding.

Prosecutors turned to Iran Brown's shooting Wednesday to strengthen their effort to seek the death penalty against Muhammad under an untested Virginia "anti-terrorism" law.

The law requires proof that a killer attempted to "influence" the public.

If a jury convicts Muhammad under the statute, he would be eligible for death by chemical injection -- a penalty the jury would have to sanction in a separate phase of the trial.

Muhammad is charged with murdering Dean Meyers, a Maryland civil engineer killed Oct. 9, 2002, at a Manassas, Va., gas station. Muhammad's alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, is charged in a separate killing. Prosecutors are trying to link Muhammad to the 10 sniper slayings in the Washington area -- along with three other murders and six other shootings -- in order to bring a second death penalty charge against him. That Virginia law requires proof that more than one homicide was committed over a three-year period.

Prosecutors called a Maryland police captain to the witness stand Wednesday to describe the terrified reactions of suburban parents to the prospect that their children might be targeted. Montgomery County's Nancy Demme testified that after Brown's shooting, hundreds of panicked parents had called school and police officials, prompting authorities that day to deploy police teams at scores of schools throughout the county.

"We thought we had to be responsive to the public," said Demme, who now heads the department's Major Crimes Unit.

Several witnesses also testified Wednesday that their gathering fears about the sniper killings led them to notice a dark blue Chevrolet lingering near an Exxon station outside Fredericksburg, Va., on Oct. 11, 2002.

Prosecutors have repeatedly used sightings of a Chevrolet Caprice owned by Muhammad to assert that he was near almost all of the sniper crime scenes.

Such circumstantial evidence is critical for the government's case because the prosecution was unable to find any eyewitnesses who saw either Muhammad or Malvo fire the shots that fatally wounded the victims.

Shown photographs of Muhammad's Caprice by Prince William County Commonwealth's Atty. Paul B. Ebert, witnesses Christine M. Goodwin and Patricia Bradshaw both insisted that they saw the car that day just off an exit ramp of U.S. Interstate 95.

"I'm 100% sure," Goodwin testified when Muhammad's defense lawyer, Jonathan Shapiro, questioned whether she was certain she had seen the car.

Goodwin said she saw the Caprice parked near the Exxon station that morning. Bradshaw testified that while she was finishing breakfast at a nearby Waffle House restaurant, she saw a Caprice pull into a Ramada Hotel lot across the street.

"I saw this dark, clunky car, colored blue, with very dark tinted windows going very slow, coming past the Exxon station and turning left into the Ramada" lot, Bradshaw said.

Seconds later, 53-year-old Kenneth H. Bridges, a Philadelphia businessman heading home, was felled with a single rifle shot to the back.

"Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!" Bridges cried out. Then he toppled over, said Christopher Estey, a West Point, N.Y., resident who described the traveler's death on Wednesday. Estey said he had stopped at the I-95 Exxon for gas because he feared filling up in Washington, near the earlier sniper shootings.

Minutes after the shooting, Bradshaw reported her sighting of the Caprice to a detective, she said Wednesday.

But that report, like other earlier Caprice sightings, was ignored at the time because of police emphasis on a white van that was initially linked to the sniper killing scenes.

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