- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2003

Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad’s decision to represent himself in his trial came as a courtroom surprise, but could give the former U.S. soldier accused in the killing rampage that claimed 10 lives a chance to plead face to face with jurors to spare his life.

“In my view, there’s not much chance of him not being convicted, regardless of what bizarre things may happen in the courtroom,” said Jed Babbin, a former Defense Department lawyer and legal expert now in private practice. “But acting as his own attorney, he will have an opportunity to talk directly to the jury.

“Being able to speak to the jurors directly is a very powerful tool, and if he is smarter and more eloquent than we think, despite the horrific nature of the crimes, he may be able to redeem himself enough to convince some jurors to identify with him and that could spare him the death penalty,” Mr. Babbin said.

Mr. Babbin said Mr. Muhammad’s decision to represent himself gives him the advantage of being able to cross-examine his accusers directly, perhaps including Lee Boyd Malvo, the other suspect in the sniper case. Mr. Malvo, 18, reportedly has admitted his involvement in the shootings to police and jail guards.

Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. granted Mr. Muhammad’s request to represent himself during the opening phase of a capital-murder case in the death of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, of Gaithersburg, who was killed by a sniper as he pumped gasoline at a station near Manassas on Oct. 9 last year.

Mr. Meyers was the seventh person fatally shot during a 22-day shooting spree that paralyzed the Washington metropolitan area. Mr. Muhammad’s court-appointed attorneys, Peter Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro, will assist him if necessary.

Mr. Muhammad’s decision to act as his own attorney puts him among a small but high-profile list of defendants who also rejected legal counsel to present their cases directly with the jury. Those defendants include suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian, serial killer Ted Bundy, Long Island subway killer Colin Ferguson, former Rep. James A. Traficant, Ohio Democrat, and September 11 suspect Zacarias Moussaoui.

With the exception of Moussaoui, whose case is pending, all those high-profile cases ended in convictions; Bundy was executed in 1989.

“By and large, it shows extremely poor judgment when a defendant decides to defend himself,” said Ira Robbins, a law professor at American University who specializes in self-representation. “This is not a pretty picture for him.

“This was already a complicated case before he decided to become his own lawyer,” Mr. Robbins said. “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 that prosecutors will be able to introduce evidence that his attorneys would have challenged.

He also said defendants looking to redeem themselves before a jury by acting as their own attorney generally are involved in less serious and less complicated cases.

Mr. Babbin said the trial also is likely to be less structured, with “many more errors” that could provide the basis for a later appeal.

He also said Mr. Muhammad probably would seek to use the courtroom to make a political statement “on whatever his bizarre views may be” — similar to the rambling 20-minute statement he made in court yesterday in which he spoke at length about the nature of truth. He also asked witnesses whether they had personally seen him shoot anyone.

He said prosecutors in the case also will have to be more flexible, making an “extra effort” to keep the trial on track and not allowing Mr. Muhammad to “make something of himself in the courtroom that he is not.”

Matthew Cella contributed to this story.

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