- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — Lawyers for sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo yesterday used the courtroom as a movie house to screen a 10-minute gunbattle scene from the film “The Matrix” and a 20-minute clip of violent video games, all of which they say helped brainwash the defendant to kill.

“Exposure to entertainment violence desensitizes people to violence, makes it seem more acceptable,” said Dewey Cornell, a clinical psychologist who testified about the effect of the movie and the games on the teenage defendant. “These people have more violent thoughts and actions.”

On a large screen opposite the jury, the courtroom watched a scene from “The Matrix” in which Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss enter a government building dressed in long black leather coats that conceal pistols and submachine guns. The duo engage in a prolonged shootout, killing more than a dozen policemen and soldiers in a hail of bullets.

A social worker testified Thursday that Mr. Malvo, 18, obsessed over “The Matrix” and identified with Mr. Reeves’ character.

Dr. Cornell, who has examined Mr. Malvo extensively, said yesterday that the sniper suspect had watched “The Matrix” more than 100 times, including just before the sniper attack that killed FBI analyst Linda Franklin, 47, last year outside a Home Depot store in Falls Church.

However, Dr. Cornell testified that the defendant had said that he was the spotter and convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad, 42, was the trigger man in the Franklin shooting. The testimony contradicted Mr. Malvo’s audio-recorded confession to police and bolstered the defense’s argument that their client gave a false confession to protect Muhammad.

In cross-examination, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. prodded Dr. Cornell to say that in the doctor’s initial interviews Mr. Malvo had confessed to being the trigger man who killed Mrs. Franklin and most of the other sniper victims.

“When I first talked to him,” Dr. Cornell said, “he said he did those shootings, a number of the shootings. Then later he said he did not, but he did the last shooting. … I don’t think he told me that he killed Linda Franklin specifically.”

Mr. Malvo faces the death penalty on two counts of capital murder in the death of Mrs. Franklin — one under Virginia’s new antiterrorism law and the other under a serial-killer law. He also has been linked to at least seven other shootings in the three-week rampage in October last year that left 10 dead and three wounded in the Washington area. He is also charged with using a firearm in commission of a felony.

A Virginia Beach jury on Nov. 24 recommended a death sentence for Muhammad after convicting him on identical murder and gun charges for the Oct. 9, 2002, slaying of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, at a Manassas gas station. Muhammad also was convicted of conspiracy. He will be sentenced Feb. 12.

Yesterday, the Malvo jury also watched video games with military or commando themes, including Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow 6: Covert Ops, and Halo. The games were replete with graphic violence and provided first-person perspectives of military characters gunning down enemy soldiers with the aid of a simulated sniper scope.

Mr. Malvo and Muhammad played these games regularly, and the defense argues that the elder man used the games to train the defendant as a sniper and condition him to kill people.

Mr. Horan questioned the notion of a movie or a video game spawning a serial killer. “Do you know of a study that shows people who watch “The Matrix” go out and kill random people on the street?”

“No,” the psychiatrist said.

“What about the millions and millions of young American males who play video games and don’t go out and kill random people on the street?” Mr. Horan asked.

Dr. Cornell said studies have shown that violent entertainment can contribute to violent behavior.

The prosecutor also questioned Dr. Cornell extensively about Mr. Malvo’s history of deviant and criminal behavior. The doctor acknowledged that the defendant as a child had hunted stray cats with a sling shot and marbles, killing as many as 20 cats over the years and wounding many more.

Dr. Cornell said that about a third of violent offenders have a history of animal cruelty.

Mr. Malvo also stole money out of the cash register at his mother’s shop when he was 7, shoplifted comic books and CDs from stores when he was 11 or 12, and pulled a knife on a man arguing with his mother when he was 14, according to testimony.

Mr. Malvo’s lawyers are trying to convince the jury that their client could not differentiate between right and wrong during the spree because Muhammad had indoctrinated him into an “extreme brand of Islam” and brainwashed him to be an assassin.

During more than five hours of testimony, Dr. Cornell was prevented from offering an opinion about whether Mr. Malvo was legally insane at the time of the shootings. But his assessment of the defendant’s mental state still gave credence to the insanity defense.

He said Mr. Malvo had suffered from a mental disorder at the time of the spree.

Other mental health experts scheduled to testify today will address the issue of legal insanity or inability to distinguish between right and wrong.

“Lee told me he was taught that right and wrong did not exist,” Dr. Cornell said. “Whatever Mr. Muhammad wanted him to do was the right thing to do.”

“He believed that what he was doing was right, that Mr. Muhammad was the one chosen by Allah and they were chosen to free the oppressed black people,” Dr. Cornell said.

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