Sniper Suspect Muhammad Argues Own Case
Oct. 21, 2003
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) _ Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad won the right to serve as his own lawyer Monday in a surprise, last-minute request at his murder trial. He broke a year of stony silence by proclaiming his innocence in a rambling opening statement and asking a witness: ``Have you ever seen me shoot anyone?''
It was not clear why Muhammad decided to fire his lawyers, who will serve as standby counsel in the first trial to come out of last year's sniper spree. Just last week, Muhammad told the judge that he was satisfied with his attorneys.
Muhammad's decision to represent himself in the death penalty case means he could end up cross-examining his accusers, perhaps survivors of the shootings.
In his 20-minute opening statement, Muhammad said nothing about the shootings except to deny involvement.
``I know what happened. I know what didn't happen. They're basing what they said about me on a theory. If we monitor (the evidence) step by step, it will all show I had nothing to do with these crimes,'' he told the jury.
Muhammad, 42, is charged in the slaying of Dean Harold Meyers, a 53-year-old Vietnam veteran who was gunned down outside a northern Virginia gas station last October. He was the seventh victim in a three-week shooting spree that left 10 people dead in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, were arrested last Oct. 24 at a highway rest stop in Maryland. Prosecutors have said the shootings were part of a plot to extort $10 million from the government.
Malvo was in the courtroom for about two minutes Monday to allow a prosecution witness to identify him.
Prosecutors say Malvo has made several statements to police and jail guards in which he confessed involvement in many of the attacks. But Muhammad barely spoke to investigators, and offered only terse, one-word answers to questions in many pretrial hearings.
Muhammad spoke at length during his opening statement about the nature of truth, saying at one point, ``Jesus said, `Ye shall know the truth.''' He also said he hopes to be found innocent ``by the grace of Allah.''
``There's three truths. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I always thought there was just one truth,'' he said. ``The facts should help us identify what's a lie, what's not a lie.''
He also spoke about his children, whom he said he ``loves very much.''
He said he once punished his daughter for eating chocolate cookies, only to find out later that the daughter had not disobeyed him. Similarly, he said, he is being persecuted by authorities who do not know the truth behind the sniper spree.
Muhammad asked the jury to pay close attention to the facts because ``my life and my son's life is on the line,'' apparently a reference to Malvo. Muhammad and Malvo, 18, are not related, but have referred to each other as father and son.
Later, a Manassas bank employee, Linda Thompson, testified she saw Muhammad and Malvo outside her bank, near the shooting scene, shortly before Meyers was killed. Prosecutors brought in Malvo, in an orange jumpsuit, for the woman to identify.
Muhammad asked the woman why she thought the two were suspicious.
``Was it because we was black that you remember us?'' he asked. She denied that race was an issue.
It was the second time Malvo and Muhammad had been in court together this month. At an Oct. 1 pretrial hearing for Muhammad, Malvo invoked his constitutional protection against self-incrimination when asked if he knew the fellow suspect.
On Monday, Muhammad declined to cross-examine the victim's brother, Larry Meyers, who testified about Dean Meyers' life, including his military service in Vietnam, and identified his brother from a gruesome crime-scene photo.
At the end of the day, standby lawyer Jonathan Shapiro complained that prosecutors were improperly eliciting testimony geared to generate sympathy for Meyers _ testimony he said would be appropriate only at sentencing. But Millette said Shapiro, as standby counsel, was not permitted to make such an argument.
After the hearing, Shapiro declined comment on Muhammad's decision to represent himself.
The first witness was Mark Spicer, a sergeant major in the British army with extensive expertise as a sniper. Muhammad objected, saying he had been given no notice of Spicer's testimony. Prosecutor Paul Ebert said he is not required to provide such notice, and the judge agreed.
Spicer testified that a sniper's ``main weapon is his ability to spread terror over a much larger force than himself.'' He added that snipers work in two-man teams, and that it would be nearly impossible to be successful working alone.
Muhammad again unsuccessfully objected to Spicer's testimony, saying it was irrelevant unless Spicer could show Muhammad _ an Army veteran of the Gulf War _ underwent the same type of training that Spicer described.
Under cross-examination, Muhammad asked Spicer, ``Have you ever seen me shoot anyone?'' He also asked whether potential sniper tools like walkie-talkies, earplugs, maps and a video recorder also could have benign uses, like keeping tabs on his son at a mall.
Spicer agreed, but that opened the door for Ebert later to grab a Bushmaster rifle _ apparently the same one authorities believe was used in the sniper shootings _ and ask sarcastically, ``Have you ever seen anyone walking around in a mall carrying something like that?''
In granting Muhammad's request to represent himself, Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. told the jury that defense attorneys Peter Greenspun and Shapiro would be there only to assist Muhammad.
Assistant prosecutor James Willett then began his opening statement, silently assembling the rifle. Willett told the jury he plans to link Muhammad and Malvo to most of the sniper shootings. After Muhammad's arrest, he said, ``ordinary people going about ordinary tasks would be able to do so without fear for their very lives.''
Willett then explained the importance of a spotter's role in a sniper shooting, which will be an important issue at trial. Defense lawyers have argued that Malvo fired the fatal shot in the Oct. 9, 2002, slaying of Meyers. Because of that, they argue that Virginia law prohibits imposing the death penalty against Muhammad on one of the two capital murder counts he faces.
But prosecutors say Muhammad's role in the shooting was so direct that he might as well have pulled the trigger.
Willett showed the jury a diagram of the intersection where Meyers was shot, and said the fatal shot came from across the street.
``It was a distance of about 80 yards,'' Willett said. ``You can see how important a spotter would be'' to help locate and point out a target to the shooter.
Malvo goes on trial separately next month in another killing.
Muhammad's trial was moved to Virginia Beach after defense lawyers argued that every northern Virginia resident could be considered a victim because of the fear the shootings caused.
Associated Press writer Sonja Barisic contributed to this report.