Manassas Journal Messenger | Muhammad turns defense over to attorneys

Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad’s two attorneys expressed relief that he rehired them this morning after two days of acting as his own counsel.

Muhammad decided Monday to represent himself just as testimony in the trial was about to begin.

“You don’t know how emotional it is for a lawyer with death on the table to be sidelined in deference to a defendant’s right to represent himself,” said Jonathan Shapiro, reading a statement outside the Virginia Beach courthouse with co-counsel Peter Greenspun after court recessed Wednesday. “While it is the defendant’s right to make that choice, all would agree there is the appearance that justice is not being served. It’s absolutely painful to legitimize the proceedings by having to sit there silently. We’re greatly relieved that Mr. Muhammad decided to change course.”

Prince William Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. held a half-hour bench discussion with Muhammad, his two attorneys and prosecutors before the jury was let into the courtroom Wednesday morning.

“Are you making this decision solely because of the problems you’ve been having or because you think it’s in your best interests?” Millette could be heard asking Muhammad.

Muhammad’s right cheek was visibly swollen because of a toothache, and Millette asked him if court should be delayed so he could see a doctor. Court went on and Muhammad at times held his jaw in his hand during the day.

“If you let them take over the case again, I’m not going to let you change again,” Millette told Muhammad.

Legal experts said Millette had little choice Monday when Muhammad requested to defend himself because Millette determined the high school graduate was competent and understanding of his legal rights. Had Millette denied Muhammad’s request Monday, and likewise denied his change Wednesday, those decisions could have been the basis of arguments for an appeal. The judge has the discretion to decide what is fair for the judicial process and given the complexity of the case it was a good decision, legal experts said.

“Mr. Muhammad believes it is in his best interest to no longer represent himself, so his attorneys will represent him for the balance of the trial,” Millette told the jury.

The effect of having a professional counsel was immediate, with Greenspun and Shapiro from the start objecting to questions by the prosecution, in contrast to Muhammad making objections without being able to effectively argue them.

Greenspun argued against the admissibility of three robbery shootings that preceded the sniper-style shootings, and got expert analysis by two Prince George’s County police employees thrown out because the defense learned about it in the last week.

In the non-fatal shooting of Muhammad Rashid in front of a liquor store in Brandywine, Md., Sept. 14, 2002, Prince George’s police took measurements in November from the two bullet impacts that went through the door missing Rashid.

Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert was preparing to have police testimony show how the path of the bullets came from across the two-lane road that fronts the liquor store from a raised position, such as from the height of a car.

A report on the measurements was written last week and Ebert gave it to the defense after he got it Sunday.

Greenspun said expert reports have to be turned over to the defense in a timely manner by court order. It was no secret to the prosecution the measurements had been taken because the sniper task force directed and accompanied Prince George’s police in November, he said.

“To this moment, we don’t have his report, his opinion,” Greenspun said, arguing the papers he got from Ebert with heights and angles in diagrams does not constitute an expert opinion that the shots originated from across the street.

Ebert said he gave the defense the report as soon as he got it, but Millette ruled against him.

In the second case, a Prince George’s police officer shot a .22 caliber handgun into the door of the liquor store last week. Ebert gave Greenspun an oral report from the officer Wednesday afternoon, shortly before the officer was going to testify, and Greenspun said this was not enough time to give the defense a fair chance to investigate and counter the findings.

Greenspun argued the prosecution has always maintained that ballistics were a key part of their case and the defense has prepared based on reports given a long time ago.

“We certainly have given them more than I think we need to give them as soon as we have it,” Ebert answered.

But Millete disagreed.

“It’s too late. You’ve had a year to get his case together,” Millette said.

Ebert asked Millette for guidance on the timeframe for collecting evidence.

“You’re still taking evidence now?” Millette asked.

Ebert said he does not sit around, he continues to collect evidence even as a trial approaches on all his cases.

Greenspun lost his objections to prevent the testimony by Rashid.

“Here we’re talking about a very aggressive robbery and shooting ? very prejudicial without any tie to Mr. Muhammad,” Greenspun said.

Millette allowed the testimony, but Greenspun and Shapiro can continue to argue about its significance in future arguments over weight of evidence.

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