Sniper trial suspect quits representing himself in trial

Thursday, October 23, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- After two days of occasional fumbling in the courtroom, sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad gave up trying to be his own attorney Wednesday and put his fate back in the hands of his court-appointed attorneys.

"Mr. Muhammad no longer believes it is in his best interest to represent himself," Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. told the jury in the murder case.

Muhammad, 42, whose face is badly swollen from a chronic toothache, did not spell out his reasons in open court but assured the judge that it had nothing to do with his health.

Muhammad had stunned the judge and his own attorneys when he demanded the right to act as his own attorney just as opening arguments in the capital case were to begin Monday.

After court adjourned Wednesday, Muhammad's attorneys, Peter Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro, expressed relief that their client had changed course.

They had served as standby counsel while Muhammad represented himself.

Prosecutors declined comment.

Muhammad is on trial in the slaying of Dean Harold Meyers, who was cut down by a single bullet at a Virginia gas station during the spree that left 10 people dead in the Washington, D.C., area in October 2002.

On Wednesday, the most dramatic testimony of the trial yet came from liquor-store employee Muhammad Rashid, who was shot in the stomach in Brandywine, Md., in September 2002.

Rashid identified fellow sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo as the man who shot and robbed him while Rashid played dead so his attacker would not shoot again. Prosecutors then played Rashid's 911 call, in which he wailed for help for six minutes, telling the dispatcher: "I am dying. ... I am all by myself."

Rashid shook on the stand and jurors rocked in their seats as they listened to the tape.

Rashid was allowed to testify only after identifying Malvo as his attacker, with the jury out of the courtroom. It was only the third time Malvo and Muhammad had been in the same courtroom; the encounter was brief, with no apparent eye contact between them.

When Rashid saw the 18-year-old Malvo in the courtroom, he said, "Yes, his face, his color, his physical structure is very similar" to his attacker.

The defense objected to Rashid's testimony on several grounds, saying the shooting was irrelevant to the murder charges against Muhammad.

Greenspun also argued that any identification of Malvo would be tainted because Rashid only briefly saw his attacker and because Malvo's face has been broadcast so frequently since the attack.

Prosecutors have said that ballistics evidence in the Rashid shooting will be linked to other shootings and that the robbery was one of several used to finance the sniper spree.

Another shooting survivor, Kellie Adams, testified Wednesday about an attack in Alabama that has been linked to the sniper suspects. Adams was wounded so seriously in the Sept. 21, 2002, shooting she still must breathe through a tube. Her liquor store co-worker, Claudine Parker, died.

Adams said she never heard the gunshot that pierced the back of her neck and exited her jaw. "The whole left side of my face was just kind of splayed open," she said.

Adams said she saw only the legs of her attacker, but James Gray of Montgomery, Ala., who helped police chase the attacker, identified Malvo as the man he chased.

Gray also picked Malvo out of a photo lineup presented to him last year, but on cross-examination he acknowledged that he initially described to police a man with a lighter complexion than Malvo.

Prosecutors had complained about Muhammad's self-representation, even asking the judge at one point to stop him from serving as his own lawyer. They said Muhammad was receiving too much help from his two defense lawyers, whose role as standby counsel was supposed to be limited.

The judge ordered Muhammad to physically distance himself from his standby counsel to minimize communication with them.

Experts said the two days of self-representation did more harm than good to Muhammad's case.

"The one thing he may have done that's positive is he revealed himself to the jury as a human being. He may have made it more difficult to recommend a death penalty," said Joseph Bowman, a veteran criminal defense attorney who has handled death penalty cases in Virginia.

Malvo is scheduled to go on trial separately next month in the slaying of an FBI analyst. He also faces the death penalty if convicted.

Malvo's lawyers gave notice this month that they plan to present an insanity defense. In response, prosecutors on Wednesday asked that his trial, set to begin Nov. 10, be postponed for a month to give their mental health expert time to examine and evaluate Malvo.


Associated Press writer Sonja Barisic contributed to this report.

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