- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2003

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — Sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo pleaded not guilty yesterday and his attorneys gave a preview of their defense strategy while questioning jury candidates on the first day of the teen’s capital murder trial.

Michael Arif and Craig S. Cooley, lead attorneys on Mr. Malvo’s defense team, advised the court and jury candidates they would present an insanity defense based on evidence of Mr. Malvo’s impoverished, unhappy childhood and his indoctrination into co-defendant John Allen Muhammad’s “extreme brand of Islam.”

Mr. Malvo, 18, and Mr. Muhammad, 42, face the death penalty in separate murder trials for 13 sniper shootings in the Washington area last year that left 10 persons dead. Virginia law does not provide for a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, but an insanity defense is allowed, and a jury can reach a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Both sniper trials were moved to the Hampton Roads area because of pretrial publicity.

During a hearing before jury selection began yesterday, Fairfax County Circuit Judge Jane Marum Roush denied a defense request to throw out the charge of committing murder in an act of terrorism, one of two charges against Mr. Malvo that carry the death penalty.

Defense attorney Mark J. Petrovich argued that the antiterrorism charge should be dropped because the grand jury that handed up the indictment was tainted by the same pretrial publicity that made Fairfax County an unfit venue for trial.

Mr. Petrovich cited Judge Roush’s decision this past summer to move the trial 200 miles southeast because the sniper’s three-week rampage left Northern Virginians too traumatized to serve as fair and impartial jurors.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing as a change of venue for a grand jury,” Judge Roush said before denying the motion.

Prosecutors in Mr. Muhammad’s trial, under way since Oct. 14 in Virginia Beach, contend that Mr. Muhammad manipulated the younger Mr. Malvo into carrying out some of the sniper shootings. Attorneys for Mr. Malvo, who confessed to some of the shootings, hope the same argument will lead to an acquittal for their client — or at least keep him off death row.

The teenager faces two counts of capital murder for the Oct. 14, 2002, slaying of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, 47, in the parking lot of a Home Depot store in Falls Church. One count is under Virginia’s new antiterrorism law and the other comes under a serial-killing law. Both carry the death penalty.

Mr. Muhammad faces similar charges in the Oct. 9, 2002, shooting of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, at a Manassas gas station.

“There will be evidence about whether [Mr. Malvos mother] was a good or a bad mother,” Mr. Arif told one group of potential jurors, who were brought into court in groups of three for questioning about their ability to serve as fair and impartial jurors.

Mr. Malvo’s mother, Una James, has been asked to testify at her son’s trial, though she has been deported to Jamaica and may not be able to return to the United States, Mr. Cooley said at a news conference yesterday evening after court proceedings.

During questioning of jury candidates, Mr. Arif asked one group if it could weigh fairly contributing factors of “poverty, child abuse, mental disturbance and a misspent youth.”

Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. objected on several occasions to Mr. Arif’s line of questioning. Mr. Horan’s questions focused mainly on whether jury candidates were able to impose a death sentence.

The judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys asked the candidates a broad range of questions about their beliefs on the death penalty, whether they had been influenced by media coverage of the sniper killings and the trials, and about their associations with religious groups and gun groups.

They excused 46 of 151 jury candidates — 41 who could not serve on the jury for the anticipated 45-day trial and five who were disqualified for reasons such as an inability to impose a death sentence. Mr. Cooley predicted jury selection, scheduled to take a week, would be completed in three days.

During breaks, Mr. Malvo was smiling and sometimes chuckling as he conversed with his attorneys.

“He looked happy, confident,” said a man watching the proceedings from the courtroom. “When you see him in person he looked just like a kid at the mall. It’s unsettling, given the gravity of the charges.”

A native of Kingston, Jamaica, the teenage suspect was raised by a single, often-absent mother. Mr. Malvo met Mr. Muhammad in 2001, when the boy and his mother moved from Jamaica to the island of Antigua. Miss James left her son with Mr. Muhammad in Antigua when she immigrated illegally to Fort Myers, Fla., to find work.

Mr. Malvo briefly joined his mother in Florida in 2001, but he lived with Mr. Muhammad in a homeless shelter in Washington state and later in Louisiana before the pair made their way to the Washington, D.C., suburbs last year.

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