Sniper suspect private eye OK’d

Attorneys representing sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad successfully argued for two separate, court-appointed private investigators to research their client’s history and the crimes he is accused of committing — while laying the initial groundwork for a possible future defense strategy in Prince William County Circuit Court on Friday.

Attorney Jonathan Shapiro told Judge Leroy F. Millette Jr. that there is substantial precedent in capital trials that calls for a defense team consisting of at least two attorneys and one mitigations specialist. If convicted, evidence uncovered by a mitigations specialist would be used to argue against the death penalty, Shapiro said.

“The Commonwealth is trying to take Mr. Muhammad’s life,” he said

Muhammad, 42, and associate Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, are accused of shooting 19 people, 13 fatally, in five states and Washington, D.C. Muhammad is charged here with killing Dean Harold Meyers, 53, at a Manassas-area Sunoco station Oct. 9 last year. He is slated to face trial this year in October — during the one-year anniversary of the three week shooting spree he and Malvo are accused of carrying out.

Malvo will be tried as an adult in Fairfax County for the Oct. 14 slaying of FBI analyst Linda Franklin. He was 17 when Franklin was killed.

Both men could get the death penalty if convicted.

Muhammad, an Army engineer in the first Persian Gulf War, may have been exposed to nerve agents in that conflict, Shapiro told Millette during the hearing.

“We have the need to investigate his role in serving our country during the Gulf War,” Shapiro said. He went on to say that Muhammad had a “possible exposure to chemical weapons.”

After the hearing, he could not identify to reporters the particular chemicals that attorneys suspect Muhammad of being exposed to. The defense team currently has medical records that are “far from complete,” Shapiro said.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert argued against the need for a mitigations specialist. Ebert contended that defense attorneys are proposing that a social scientist fill the role. That person would not have the expertise to research the broad issues Shapiro and co-counsel Peter D. Greenspun are seeking to learn more about, Ebert said. Shapiro said the defense team wanted to look into Muhammad’s cultural background, relationships, business ventures, medical records and possible psychiatric illnesses.

Millette was satisfied that the appointment of a mitigations specialist is both an efficient use of resources and appropriate in this case. To have the attorneys attempt to investigate Muhammad’s background while preparing a defense would be more costly and inefficient than hiring the specialist, he said.

He also appointed a private investigator to research the crimes Muhammad is accused of. Ebert did not object to the request, but did ask to be informed of the investigator’s identity, to ensure that person is credible.

Millette denied Ebert’s request, but told the defense that he would be watching to see if the two appointed investigators duplicate services.

Greenspun referenced a hearing set to take place next week, where he and Shapiro will seek a gag order for all law enforcement personnel involved in the case.

He filed a motion to do so Friday in Circuit Court. He and Shapiro said after Friday’s hearing that much of the information leaked to a New York Times reporter for an April 5 story was wrong and so out of context that it makes no sense. The article he referred to cited an anonymous source speaking about statements Malvo made during interrogations.

“We can’t un-ring the bell, but we can try to stop it,” Greenspun said of the leaks that have already gotten out.

Staff writer Daniel Drew can be reached at (703) 878-8065.

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