- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH — The first victim in the Washington-area sniper shootings spoke face to face with the man accused of participating in the crimes — John Allen Muhammad — during an intense cross-examination yesterday in Virginia Beach Circuit Court.

Paul J. LaRuffa, 55, burst into tears as he testified about how an unseen assailant had shot him in his arm, chest and side Sept. 5, 2002, after he had closed his restaurant in Clinton.

After he got into his car about 10:30 p.m., Mr. LaRuffa said, “I saw a flash of light. The [car] window broke. I heard shots. I was being shot. I waited for the shots to stop. It seemed like forever, but it was only several seconds. I said, ‘I wasn’t going to die. I’m not dying in this parking lot in Clinton.’”

One bullet fragment lodged next to his spinal cord.

Mr. Muhammad, who is defending himself against two capital murder charges, cross-examined Mr. LaRuffa, saying, “I know you understand how it feels to have your life on the line.”

The response angered prosecutor James A. Willett, a Prince William County assistant commonwealth’s attorney, who said Mr. Muhammad made the statement to “curry favor” with the jury.

Authorities say Mr. Muhammad, 42, and fellow suspect Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, shot Mr. LaRuffa and robbed him of a laptop and $3,500 to finance a shooting spree that killed 10 persons and wounded three others in the Washington area during three weeks last October.

The laptop was found with Mr. Muhammad when he was arrested. Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo also are suspected or charged in shootings in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Arizona and Washington state.

Mr. Muhammad is charged with the fatal shooting of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, on Oct. 9. Mr. Meyers, who was on his way home to Gaithersburg, was killed while pumping gas at a Sunoco station in Manassas.

Mr. Malvo is scheduled to go on trial Nov. 10 in Chesapeake, Va., in the fatal shooting of FBI employee Linda Franklin, 47, on Oct. 14, 2002.

Mr. Muhammad also questioned other prosecution witnesses, including a Prince William County police officer who confronted him shortly after the shooting of Mr. Meyers.

Prosecutors presented two pieces of evidence that they said put Mr. Muhammad at the site where the shot was fired, a Bob Evans parking lot across the street from the Sunoco station.

Prince William County Police Officer Steven Bailey testified that he had spoken with Mr. Muhammad less than 30 minutes after the shooting. Officer Bailey blocked the restaurant parking lot with his police cruiser, then took down the names and license plate numbers of everyone in the lot. Officer Bailey said he remembered talking to Mr. Muhammad, who was “polite and very courteous.”

Officer Bailey said he did not record Mr. Muhammad’s name or license plate number because people in other cars in the lot were becoming irate and panicky. Mr. Muhammad told him that he was traveling home from vacation, had stopped off Route 66 onto Route 234, and was directed into the parking lot by police, Officer Bailey said.

“Did that make sense to you?” Mr. Muhammad asked Officer Bailey.

“No, I didn’t catch on,” Officer Bailey said, looking directly at Mr. Muhammad. “I wish I had.”

The other piece of evidence was a map of Baltimore that Officer Bailey had found in the parking lot.

A forensics specialist with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) testified that fingerprints on the map matched those of Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo.

Prosecutors challenged Mr. Muhammad’s competence to represent himself, saying he was conferring too much with his court-appointed attorneys, who had become “standby” attorneys and were allowed to answer only occasional questions in court.

“It’s apparent that the defendant cannot act as his own counsel,” said prosecutor Richard A. Conway, a Prince William assistant commonwealth’s attorney. “He’s certainly not doing so without the assistance of [defense attorney Peter D.] Greenspun. If Mr. Muhammad cannot act as his own counsel, we ask that you terminate his attempt to do so.”

Prince William County Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. admonished Mr. Muhammad but said he was able to represent himself.

Mr. Muhammad volunteered to sit farther away from Mr. Greenspun and his other attorney, Jonathan Shapiro, at the defense table.

His cross-examination of witnesses ranged from odd to clever.

He asked Charles Colman, the ATF forensics specialist testifying about the fingerprints on the map, about forensics.

“Is it a science?” Mr. Muhammad asked. “Is it more of a science or more of a guess?”

He also asked Mr. Colman whether fingerprints could be moved.

Mr. Colman said yes.

When Officer Bailey testified that he could not remember the license plate on Mr. Muhammad’s vehicle, Mr. Muhammad asked him to repeat the exact directions from the police headquarters to the Bob Evans parking lot.

After Mr. Bailey did so, Mr. Muhammad said softly, “That’s some pretty good detail.”

Mr. Muhammad was polite to witnesses and to the judge. He also asked several witnesses whether they had seen him carry out the shootings.

In Mr. Muhammad’s opening statement Monday, he said the prosecution was basing its case on circumstantial evidence, not “the whole truth.”

After court yesterday, Mr. LaRuffa described his cross-examination by the man accused of attacking him as surreal.

“It’s from the twilight zone,” he said. “Defendants aren’t supposed to question you, and that’s what happened.”

Still, Judge Millette said Mr. Muhammad “appears to be competently representing himself, appears to be asking questions appropriately, seems to understand his legal rights.”

Court began yesterday with Mr. Muhammad withdrawing a request that might have allowed him to introduce mental health evidence at his trial.

“I’ve changed my mind on that,” Mr. Muhammad told Judge Millette at the beginning of court on the sixth day of the trial.

Mr. Muhammad has been barred from presenting any mental health evidence on his behalf because he refused to meet with the prosecutors’ mental health expert. On Monday, the first day Mr. Muhammad served as his own attorney, he had asked Judge Millette to reconsider that ruling in hopes of using it as mitigating evidence at sentencing if he is convicted.

Jason Salazar, a witness to the shooting of Mr. Meyers, testified that he heard the shot and saw Mr. Meyers as he lay dying in a pool of blood beside a gas pump.

Mr. Salazar said he immediately assumed it was a sniper shooting, so he “went inside the store, dug down.”

He said he felt “unsafe, scared.”

The testimony bolsters the prosecution’s theory that the sniper shootings amounted to acts of terrorism.

On cross-examination, Mr. Salazar was asked whether he could recall seeing Mr. Muhammad in the area.

Mr. Salazar said he could not.

Medical examiner Frances Field testified that Mr. Meyers died from a single gunshot wound that entered behind his left ear and then fractured his skull into more than a dozen pieces.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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