Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad “has a death wish,” defense attorney Michael Arif said Monday. Arif represents Muhammad’s alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo.
Monday morning, Muhammad told Judge LeRoy F. Millette he wanted to represent himself, dismissing the pair of attorneys who have spent a year preparing his defense.
After extended questioning at the bench, Millette agreed. Former defense attorneys Peter Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro are now designated as standby counsel. At one point during the hushed conference at the judge’s bench, Shapiro turned, and stared blindly into the courtroom.
“This isn’t traffic court,” Arif said later, shaking his head.
But Muhammad seems to be aware of that.
In a repetitious opening statement, he told jurors “my life and my son’s life are on the line.”
The son he seemed to be referencing was also present Monday in Virginia Beach.
Malvo stared straight ahead as he was led into the courtroom later Monday afternoon, flanked by sheriff’s deputies. He didn’t acknowledge Muhammad until he was identified by a witness as one of the two men she saw in the vicinity of the Oct. 9, 2002 shooting about two hours before Dean Harold Meyers was killed. After Linda Thompson identified Muhammad and then Malvo as the two men she saw, Malvo turned to stare at Muhammad.
In an hour-and-twenty-minute opening statement, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney James A. Willett described 16 shootings, including 10 deaths, which he said have been forensically linked to Muhammad and Malvo. Willett said the evidence includes DNA, fingerprints, witnesses who saw Muhammad in the areas of the shootings, and ballistic matches to the .223 high-power rifle found in the Chevrolet Caprice that Muhammad was arrested in with Malvo.
Muhammad, 42, and Malvo, 18, are charged with the three-week shooting spree in the Washington, D.C., area that killed 10 people during the fall of 2002. Malvo will stand trial in Chesapeake beginning Nov. 10. He is charged with the death of Linda Franklin, 47, who was shot while loading purchases into her car at a Fairfax Home Depot store.
Muhammad told the jury he had nothing to do with the series of shootings, either directly or indirectly.
“There is no doubt in anyone’s mind something happened. We are here in court to find out what happened,” Muhammad said. “The evidence will show I had nothing to do with these crimes.”
Muhammad’s opening statement included a story about his children. He told jurors that he once thought his daughter Talibah had disobeyed him and eaten cookies from a cookie jar. His son later told him he had given her the cookies. When Muhammad asked her why she didn’t say that, Talibah told him it was because he had told her to be quiet.
“Like what these people told me,” Muhammad said, presumably referring to his lawyers. “Go to jail and don’t say nothing.”
It is perhaps the only hint offered Monday of why he chose to represent himself.
“It’s unusual but not unheard of for someone in his position to do this. The Constitution states clearly he has the right to do that if he wishes,” Willett told jurors in his opening statements. “We will make him play by the rules of evidence. We are not going to lay down because he made that decision.”
Surprisingly, Muhammad returned the favor, objecting several times during the prosecution’s first four witnesses. He objected to testimony from British sniper expert Sgt. Maj. Mark Spicer, saying he didn’t know about the expert previously. He objected to testimony from the victim’s brother and co-worker as well, arguing that biography of the victim wasn’t relevant to the case.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Richard A. Conway later objected that Muhammad wasn’t representing himself ? Greenspun and Shapiro were constantly conferring and telling Muhammad what to say. Millette agreed. He told the attorneys they could only answer Muhammad’s direct questions, not offer unsolicited advice.
Spicer, the prosecution’s expert witness, described in detail how a sniper team operates, their intent, and what types of weapons and tools they use. Much of his testimony revolved around the roles of the two members of the sniper team, the shooter and the observer/spotter. The spotter actually has greater responsibility, Spicer said. It is the spotter who selects the kill zone and target, directs the shooter, navigates the team into and out of the killing zone, and provides security for the team.
Ebert also questioned Spicer about a sniper team’s ultimate weapon: to instill fear in and terrorize a much larger population.
Those questions seemed to go towards what has been suggested as the prosecution’s weaknesses: lack of evidence of who was the actual triggerman during each of the shootings, and the untested nature of one of the capital indictments against Muhammad.
The Commonwealth has two different theories of Dean Harold Meyers’ murder. Meyers, 53, died Oct. 9, 2002, while filling his gas tank at the Sunoco station on Va. 234 north of Manassas. One theory charges Muhammad with capital murder for killing Meyers and one or more other people within three years; the other charges him with killing Meyers during an act of terrorism.
Muhammad is the first to be prosecuted under the act of terrorism statute. Prosecutors will have to show that Muhammad participated in a slaying and that the intent was to influence the government or to intimidate the civilian population. The other capital charge alleges multiple murders over three years. Prosecutors will have to prove Muhammad’s involvement in the Meyers killing and at least one other fatal shooting to obtain a conviction under that count.
Muhammad objected to the two different theories presented in his opening statement. “What they have done to me, and what they are trying to do to me, they are saying that’s based on a theory. I was locked up based on a theory.” Muhammad said. “So I looked up theory. It comes down to a guess.”
Muhammad asked each witness on cross-examination if they had seen him shoot anyone, or if they had been present at the site of the shooting. No one had.
The prosecution’s case is expected to continue today. Upon Millette’s ruling, prosecutors had to give some indication of the witnesses they will call so that Greenspun and Shapiro can prepare Muhammad. Muhammad also told Millette that he will ask the court to reconsider the ban on mental health testimony today, a motion Greenspun and Shapiro had been expected to present Monday morning.
Millette banned mental health testimony from the trial after Muhammad twice refused to be interviewed by a forensic psychologist hired by prosecutors. Retrospectively, it could be another sign of strain between the defendant and his former counsel. The psychologist who had been hired to interview him told Millette last week that Muhammad’s attorneys were “upset” with him over the refusal.
Greenspun and Shapiro left Monday evening pushing a pair of carts loaded with files and three ring binders: a year’s worth of preparation for this trial.
“Nothing we can say,” Shapiro said in response to reporters’ queries for comment.