- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH — John Allen Muhammad took charge of his own defense yesterday, proclaiming his innocence in a rambling 20-minute address after Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. granted a stunning, last-minute request to allow the sniper defendant to act as his own attorney.

“If you look at the evidence, it will show I had nothing to do with these crimes,” Mr. Muhammad told the jury. “Pay attention, please pay attention, because right now my life and my son’s life are on the line,” he said, a reference to fellow defendant Lee Boyd Malvo.

Mr. Muhammad said he knew who had fired the shots that killed 10 persons and wounded three in the Washington area one year ago.

“We know something happened. [The authorities] wasn’t there. I was, and I know what happened,” he said.

Mr. Muhammad’s decision came as a shock to all parties involved — the judge, the prosecutors, the jury, the assembled media, and most of all, the two attorneys who have worked for almost a year to prepare his defense.

Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro looked ashen during the bench conference with Judge Millette as he questioned Mr. Muhammad about his decision.

“[Mr. Greenspun and Mr. Shapiro] have 54 years of legal experience and you have zero,” the Prince William County Circuit judge said. “I think it’s a tremendous mistake for you to try and represent yourself.”

Ira Robbins, a law professor at American University who specializes in self-representation, agreed.

“By and large, it shows extremely poor judgement when a defendant decides to defend himself,” Mr. Robbins said. “This is not a pretty picture for him. This was already a complicated case before he decided to become his own lawyer. He doesn’t know anything about the law; he doesn’t know anything about trial practice.”

Mr. Robbins said Mr. Muhammad’s inexperience is likely to mean the introduction of evidence that his attorneys would have challenged. Mr. Greenspun and Mr. Shapiro are now “standby counsel.” They cannot speak for Mr. Muhammad in court, but can answer his questions, though prosecutors argued that he could not confer with them on every issue.

Judge Millette agreed and said he would monitor the situation. Mr. Robbins said Mr. Muhammad could ask the judge at any time to reinstate his counsel, or the judge could find that Mr. Muhammad did not understand the rights he was waiving and reinstate the defense team.

Mr. Muhammad, who has barely talked to authorities or in court since his Oct. 24 arrest last year, spoke in a steady, respectful tone after a shaky start. He moved around the room at times and was aggressive in challenging witnesses and prosecutors.

After a 90-minute opening statement by James A. Willett, Prince William assistant commonwealth’s attorney, Mr. Muhammad rose to address the jury at about 12:40 p.m. and nervously said, “Good evening.”

In a sometimes rambling 20-minute statement, the 42-year old focused on the concept of truth, borrowing from the oath taken by all witnesses who testify in court.

“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.”

Mr. Muhammad implied there had been tampering with the evidence or that it had been planted and that witnesses had been artificially produced to make him look guilty.

Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo, 18, have been linked to the 13 shootings in the Washington area, as well as nine shootings nationwide, five of them fatal.

Mr. Malvo also appeared in court yesterday, in what would have been a dramatic development any other day. Prosecutor Paul B. Ebert, Prince William Commonwealth’s attorney, summoned Mr. Malvo so that a witness could identify him during her testimony.

Mr. Muhammad is charged with the Oct. 9 shooting death of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, at a Manassas Sunoco gas station. He is charged with one count of capital murder under Virginia’s new antiterrorism statute and one other count for committing more than one murder in less than three years. He is also charged with conspiracy and illegal use of a firearm.

Mr. Malvo goes on trial in Chesapeake on Nov. 10 for the Oct. 14 shooting of Linda Franklin, 47, in Falls Church.

Both men face the death penalty.

Mr. Malvo appeared in court for about one minute, which was time enough for bank manager Linda Thompson to identify him as the man she saw with Mr. Muhammad just before 7 p.m. less than a half-mile from the Sunoco where Mr. Meyers was shot at 8:10 p.m.

Mr. Muhammad asked Ms. Thompson, “Was it because we were black you remembered us?”

Ms. Thompson said she had become suspicious of Mr. Muhammad, who had walked past her and said, “Good evening,” because he had been with another man in a car with New Jersey license plates outside the bank near closing time.

Mr. Muhammad then asked Ms. Thompson a version of the question he had asked three other witnesses who appeared yesterday. “Did you ever see me do any of these shootings?” he asked. “No, sir,” Ms. Thompson said.

Mr. Muhammad objected to testimony by Mr. Meyers’ brother Larry, questioning its relevance. Judge Millette ordered Mr. Ebert to expedite the point. Mr. Meyers then identified his brother from a photograph of him lying in a pool of blood.

Mr. Muhammad did not cross-examine Mr. Meyers.

In an opening statement almost overlooked because of the events of the day, Mr. Willett said the prosecution’s case consisted of overwhelming circumstantial evidence. He began his statement by silently assembling a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle — the weapon used in the shootings — just a few feet from the jurors.

“We have a long and difficult journey ahead of us. There are so many crimes, so much blood,” he said. “This evidence is not hard to understand. The problem is that there is so much of it.”

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