- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

[4:47 p.m.]

Convicted sniper mastermind John Allen Muhammad told a Montgomery County jury through tears this afternoon that he is an innocent man who was on a quest to find his children when he was arrested.

In a 15-minute opening statement, Muhammad, who is representing himself in his second trial for the 2002 sniper shootings, told jurors that when his children were taken away in a custody battle, “that was my September 11.”

Muhammad, 45, portrayed himself as a loving father whose world was shattered when, on Sept. 3, 2001, police took his three children from school. The next day, Muhammad’s ex-wife, Mildred, was awarded custody in a Tacoma, Washington courtroom.

Muhammad cried as he talked about seeing his children for the last time.

But Muhammad, wearing a dark business suit and a cream colored tie, got the date wrong for when his children were taken, saying it was Aug. 31. His speech was similar to other addresses he has made in the past, referencing Jesus, Plato, the Bible, and the Army code of conduct.

The state public defender tried to argue that Muhammad is schizophrenic and incompetent to represent himself before the Army veteran dismissed them in March.

Muhammad said that when he lost his children, “I couldn’t be strong. I couldn’t be brave. I couldn’t be anything…So I had to start looking for my children.”

Muhammad said that he and Lee Boyd Malvo, who has also been convicted for his role in the sniper shootings, then went to Maryland to look for John Jr., then 12, Salena, then 10, and Taalibah, then 9.

“During that time, we were everywhere, in every sense of the word, looking for my children,” Muhammad said.

Referencing the random sniper shootings that terrorized the Washington region during three weeks in October 2002, leaving 10 dead and 3 wounded, Muhammad said, “all these things [were] going on.”

Muhammad is currently on trial for six shootings, all fatal, in the county.

A Virginia Beach jury in 2003 found Muhammad guilty of masterminding the shootings, and of using Malvo, now 21, as an accomplice. The jury sentenced Muhammad to death. Malvo was given life without parole by a Chesapeake jury two months after Muhammad’s sentence.

Authorities say they brought Muhammad to Maryland in the off chance something goes wrong on appeal in Virginia, and to deliver justice to the families of victims at the epicenter of the shooting spree.

The trial is supposed to last about six weeks. Malvo is expected to plead guilty and may testify during this trial.

Muhammad characterized his and Malvo’s arrest, on Oct. 24, 2002, as a surprise.

“All hell broke loose. We were trying to figure out what was going on, and then I find myself in Maryland,” Muhammad said. “The evidence is going to show you that John Allen Muhammad is innocent. And the evidence is going to show that my son, Lee Boyd Malvo, is innocent.”

Jurors showed little emotion, and listened with rapt attention.

Montgomery County Assistant State’s Attorney Katherine Winfree spoke for 95 minutes in her opening statement, showing little emotion but laying out a road map of the shootings and the evidence compiled against Muhammad.

“For 22 deadly days in October 2002, this man, John Allen Muhammad, and Lee Boyd Malvo…struck terror and fear into the heart of our county,” Ms. Winfree told the juror.

Before opening statements, Circuit Court Judge James L. Ryan brought about 80 potential jurors into the courtroom for the selection of a final jury. The judge had already questioned each person individually over the previous three days, to see if they could judge impartially.

Muhammad used 17 of his 20 available strikes to eliminate jurors he did not like. Most of the strikes from Muhammad, who is black, eliminated white males.

Ms. Winfree used only four of her 10 available strikes. In about 45 minutes, 12 jurors and four alternates were agreed upon.

This jury is more diverse than the jury that sentenced Muhammad to death in Virginia Beach more than two years ago. That jury included eight white women, five white men and two black women. The three alternates were not known until the end of the trial.

This jury has seven women, and five men, with three male alternates and one female alternate.

Among the 12 jurors, there are three white women, two black women, two white men, one black man, one Hispanic man, one Hispanic woman, one Asian man, and one Indian woman.

Two of the alternates are white males, one is an Asian male, and the fourth is an Indian woman.

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