Friday, April 28, 2006

A media day for the Montgomery County trial of convicted sniper mastermind John Allen Muhammad yesterday devolved into what a flustered prosecutor called a “circus,” as the judge struggled to control the courtroom for the case that begins Monday.

“This is disturbing to me to see this,” said Montgomery County Deputy State’s Attorney Katherine Winfree, when a horde of press photographers crowded the front of the courtroom, anticipating Muhammad’s entry. “This is unprecedented.”

Ms. Winfree protested to Circuit Court Judge James L. Ryan, that the crush of photographers and journalists would overwhelm and possibly anger the 45-year old convict, who was first convicted and sentenced to death in 2003 in Virginia. Prosecutors call his second trial “security” in the off chance something goes awry on appeal in the first case.

Judge Ryan, who expressly allowed the media day because he wanted photographers to be able to take pictures of Muhammad, appeared uncertain as how to proceed.

“He doesn’t expect to see you all here with your cameras,” the judge told the six television cameramen and another half dozen photographers. “When he comes in here, he’s going to see you all standing here, and it’s going to scare him.”

Then, the two attorneys who have been appointed as standby counsel for Muhammad — who has chosen to represent himself — said they wanted to speak to their client.

“I would like to speak to him and prepare him, mentally, for what he’s about to walk into,” said J. Wyndal Gordon, a Baltimore attorney.

Judge Ryan then huddled with Mr. Gordon and Ms. Winfree, as photographers and TV producers formed their own huddle to discuss having a pool photographer.

Judge Ryan announced he wanted only one photographer, and all the TV crews removed their equipment and left.

When Muhammad entered, the judge told him that the photographer was going to take his picture while he sat in his seat.

“We’re going to sit here and talk,” Judge Ryan told Muhammad.

Mr. Gordon then told Judge Ryan he had brought a suit for Muhammad to wear, to avoid having his picture taken in a prison jumpsuit.

Muhammad, who recently cut off his long hair and beard, said he didn’t want his picture taken at all.

Judge Ryan said, “I don’t know what to do, but I’m trying to figure it out.”

He was then silent for about 30 seconds, staring at Muhammad, as the photographer continued to take pictures, and more than 100 onlookers in the courtroom stared.

Judge Ryan then proceeded with a brief formal hearing on a few final pretrial matters.

Prosecutors are seeking life in prison without parole for the six fatal shootings in Montgomery County.

Muhammad was given the death penalty for masterminding the 2002 shooting spree that terrorized the Washington region and left 10 persons dead and three wounded in a three-week period.

Muhammad’s accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, now 21, was sentenced to life without parole in Virginia for his role in the shootings, and pleaded guilty in a second case. He now awaits trial in Montgomery County in connection to the shootings there.

Muhammad yesterday requested his trial be delayed, and that it be moved out of Montgomery County, just like his first trial was moved from Fairfax County to Virginia Beach because of pretrial publicity.

“I don’t believe I can get a fair trial based on all the media attention,” Muhammad said.

Judge Ryan denied both motions, telling Muhammad, “We’re going to find jurors who are fair and impartial.”

Ms. Winfree requested that during jury selection on Monday, potential jurors be asked if Muhammad’s Muslim faith will inhibit their ability to be impartial.

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