- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH — The challenge of handling his own defense and persuading a jury to spare his life seems to have energized sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad.

Acting as his own attorney, John Allen Muhammad rambled, misspoke and seemed confused at times — but overall, according to Prince William Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr., he seems to be doing a good job.

Mr. Muhammad is on trial in the Oct. 9 killing of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, at a Manassas gas station. He faces two counts of capital murder, one count of conspiracy and one count of illegal use of a firearm.

Judge Millette admonished the defendant after complaints from prosecutors that Mr. Muhammad was conferring too closely with the lawyers who he fired Monday, now relegated to “standby” status while sitting at the defense table. But otherwise, Mr. Muhammad “appears to be competently representing himself thus far.”

“He appears to be asking the questions appropriately,” Judge Millette said from the bench. “He seems to understand everything that’s going on in the courtroom and understand his legal rights and how he should protect his rights. I think that counsel have been very cooperative with him in providing the backup assistance he needs.”

During the past year in custody, throughout pretrial proceedings, and during jury selection last week, Mr. Muhammad rarely moved, let alone talked.

But since dumping his legal team, the once-stoic 42-year-old Army veteran seems fully engaged.

“That’s the control freak in him,” said Michael S. Arif, one of the attorneys for Mr. Muhammad’s co-defendant in the Washington-area sniper shootings, Lee Boyd Malvo. Mr. Arif has been at the courthouse the past two days to represent Mr. Malvo, 18, who was summoned to appear once on Monday for witness-identification purposes and might be summoned again.

The prosecution’s case is based heavily on the theory that Mr. Muhammad trained and directed Mr. Malvo in the sniper shootings. Mr. Malvo has confessed to pulling the trigger in several of the shootings; Mr. Muhammad has confessed to nothing. Because there are no eyewitnesses, the prosecution must rely on circumstantial evidence.

Mr. Muhammad has attacked the notion of circumstantial guilt, implying that the prosecution has manipulated pieces of evidence into a case that makes him look guilty. He has been aggressive but respectful — rising to his feet whenever Judge Millette asks him a question and asking witnesses during cross-examination whether they need to take a break.

Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo are charged with 13 shootings, including 10 deaths, during a three-week span last October in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. They are also suspected or charged in shootings in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Arizona and Washington state.

Mr. Malvo is scheduled to go on trial next month.

• This article based in part on wire-service reports.

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