- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH — Another week of wrenching, powerful testimony is expected to begin this morning in the trial of John Allen Muhammad, the accused mastermind of last year’s sniper spree that claimed 15 lives — 10 in the Washington area.

Officials and observers expect the trial to take on a more traditional tone after the roller-coaster atmosphere of last week, when the 42-year-old defendant took over his own defense for two days, cross-examining witnesses and victims before reconsidering and rehiring his attorneys.

“This case was anything but normal before [Mr. Muhammad] decided to represent himself. So it will get back on track, but this case is a very complicated one with difficult questions of law and fact,” said Ira Robbins, a law professor at American University who specializes in self-representation.

Once Mr. Muhammad’s attorneys were reinstated, the pace of the trial slowed considerably. The trial halted altogether Thursday because of a blown transformer that knocked out the courthouse’s power, which was restored early Friday.

But there was no lack of drama. Several witnesses gave powerful testimony, including two men who identified Mr. Muhammad’s co-defendant Lee Boyd Malvo, who was brought into the courtroom four times during the week.

Today, prosecutors will continue their efforts to link Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo, to 22 shootings around the country.

In this trial, Mr. Muhammad is charged with two counts of capital murder in connection with one slaying — the Oct. 9 fatal shooting of Dean H. Meyers, 53, at a Manassas gas station.

But the prosecution is presenting evidence in 15 other shootings, nine of those fatal, in order to qualify the defendant for the death penalty under either the state’s new antiterrorism charge, passed after September 11, or the state statute that allows capital punishment for those who kill two or more persons in less than three years.

Defense attorneys Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro objected earlier this year to the inclusion of the additional shootings, but Prince William Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. overruled them. They continued to object last week to much of the evidence in the shootings, saying it was unnecessary and inflammatory.

Prosecutors accuse Mr. Muhammad of brainwashing Mr. Malvo, now 18, and using him as an accessory in the duo’s nationwide crime spree.

When the Army veteran stunned the court by firing his own attorneys on the first day of arguments, he was utterly polite to the judge and to witnesses, asking two men if they needed a break. However, Mr. Muhammad, whom Mr. Shapiro called “a very bright man,” might have overreached.

“It is a double-edged sword. On one hand he probably wanted to appear more human. It’s harder to vote to kill someone who has human qualities. On the other hand, he could have come across as arrogant and controlling. That fits right into the hands of prosecutors,” said Mr. Robbins.

When Paul R. LaRuffa, 55, testified about being shot in the parking lot of his Clinton, Md., restaurant on Sept. 5, he broke down in tears. As onlookers watched in amazement, Mr. Muhammad rose to cross-examine him. He told him, “I know you understand how it is to have your life on the line.”

Mr. Muhammad asked only three questions of Mr. LaRuffa. Prosecutor James A. Willett, Prince William commonwealth’s assistant attorney, said it was a clear attempt to “curry favor with the jury.”

On Wednesday, two witnesses provided the most emotionally compelling moments of the trial thus far.

Muhammad Rashid, 32, who was shot in the abdomen on Sept. 5, sat in the witness chair hunched over, his face in his hands, as prosecutors played a recording of the 911 call he made.

The tape went on for several minutes as Mr. Rashid was heard moaning loudly, crying, cursing and pleading for aid.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” Mr. Rashid said on the tape as jurors sat frozen. When Mr. Malvo was brought into the room, Mr. Rashid said he looked “very similar” to the young man who shot him.

The same day, James Gray, a middle-aged Montgomery, Ala., man, testified how he had chased a young man of mixed race after two women were shot in front of a liquor store on Sept. 21. He saw the young man in an alley.

“That’s when I thought it might get ugly. When I saw his eyes he scared me,” Mr. Gray said.

Mr. Malvo was again brought into the courtroom to be identified. Mr. Gray asked him to be turned sideways so he could look at his profile. Mr. Gray made a choking noise, removed his glasses and covered his face with his hands.

“Oh God, that’s him,” he said, beginning to cry.

Mr. Muhammad’s trial is expected to last another two to four weeks.

Mr. Malvo goes on trial Nov. 10 for the Oct. 14, 2002, fatal shooting of Linda Franklin, 47, at a Falls Church Home Depot. Both trials were moved to southeastern Virginia because of pretrial publicity.

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