Muhammad sniper trial goes to jury; Malvo's continues

Friday, November 14, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- The jury in John Allen Muhammad's murder trial got the case Thursday after the prosecutor said during closing arguments that Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo formed "a sniper-spotter killing team" with Muhammad as the "captain."

The jury of 11 whites and one black was to begin deliberating today.

Meanwhile, Malvo's attorney -- delivering his opening statement at Malvo's trial 15 miles away in Chesapeake -- said Muhammad turned Malvo into a "child soldier," brainwashing him into thinking that the killings were "designed to achieve a greater good of a fairer and righteous society."

Pointing to Malvo

At Muhammad's trial, prosecutor Richard Conway forcefully countered the defense's central argument -- that Muhammad cannot get the death penalty because the evidence points to Malvo as the triggerman in the sniper attacks. Conway portrayed Muhammad as playing a vital role.

"We have a sniper-spotter killing team, taking out innocent people," the prosecutor told the jury. Pointing at Muhammad, he said: "Who do you think was the captain of this killing team? He's sitting right in front of you."

Conway noted that a piece of text found on an electronic organizer in Muhammad's car said: "The truth of the Muhammad assassinations."

"This is so telling," Conway said. "Does this say, 'The truth of the Malvo assassinations'?"

Defense attorney Peter Greenspun, at the beginning of his closing statement, acknowledged the difficulty of setting aside the emotional testimony about the shootings and focusing on the evidence.

"How can you keep an open mind looking at those pictures?" he said, referring to some of the gruesome crime-scene photos.

He said a close look at the evidence, discounting the emotion, would show that prosecutors had not proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

"They've done a great job proving that Mr. Malvo" is connected to many of the shootings by forensic evidence, Greenspun said. "There is a canyon of a lack of evidence about Mr. Muhammad."

Lead prosecutor Paul Ebert scoffed at the notion that Malvo was running the operation.

"Do you believe in your common sense that a 17-year-old boy recruited him?" Ebert asked the jury as he pointed at Muhammad.

Ebert then blamed Muhammad for molding Malvo into "an instrument of death and destruction."

Muhammad, 42, is charged in the killing of Dean Harold Meyers at a Manassas-area gas station on Oct. 9, 2002. Malvo, now 18, is accused of killing FBI analyst Linda Franklin at a Home Depot Oct. 14, 2002, in the Falls Church area.

The slayings were part of a string of shootings that killed 10 people over a three-week period in October 2002 in the Washington metropolitan area. Prosecutors said the spree was an attempt to extort $10 million from the government.

Both men are charged with two counts of capital murder, one accusing them of taking part in multiple murders, the other alleging the killings were designed to terrorize the population.

At Muhammad's trial, the prosecutor recounted the testimony of Mark Spicer, a sergeant in the British Army and an expert on snipers who testified that a two-man sniper team is necessary for success and that the spotter actually bears more responsibility than the shooter.

"It takes two," Conway said. "It comprises one deadly killing machine, but it takes two."

Spicer's testimony also showed that a sniper's most potent weapon is his ability to induce fear in a large population, Conway said.

"They foster the impression that no one is safe. Your children are not safe," Conway said, echoing the message left at one of the shooting scenes: "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time."

Greenspun ridiculed the use of Spicer's testimony, saying prosecutors had to look overseas to find a soldier whose testimony would be tailor-made to fit the circumstances of the sniper shootings.

"They had to find a way to make Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo a team, even though they have no evidence," Greenspun said. "The way they did it was to bring in a soldier from the United Kingdom."

Another witness in Muhammad's trial came under scrutiny Thursday. FBI and Justice Department documents obtained by The Associated Press showed a government chemist who testified for the prosecution has made numerous racial remarks and has an office so sloppy it has raised concerns of contaminated evidence.

The documents detail testimony from colleagues and supervisors that Edward Bender made racist comments that led at least one colleague to worry about his impartiality in cases. The prosecutor said he wasn't told by the government of the information, and defense lawyers declined comment.

At Malvo's trial, prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr. said the jury will hear about two hours of an audiotaped confession in which Malvo explained to police who he killed and how he did it.

"He's glib. He's articulate, knowledgeable. He talks about the killing power of the weapon he is using, the damage it can do," Horan said, adding that Malvo speaks so casually that "it's hard to remember he's talking about killing innocent people."

"We're going to present to you evidence of a smart, clever killer," Horan said.

Defense attorney Craig Cooley said in his opening statement that the sniper killings were part of Muhammad's scheme to reclaim custody of his three children from his ex-wife, Mildred Muhammad.

Mildred Muhammad had moved to the Washington suburbs. The ultimate plan, Cooley said, was to kill his ex-wife and make it appear it was a random sniper shooting. John Muhammad would then regain custody, take his children and Malvo to Canada and form a utopian society, Cooley said.

Cooley described Malvo as an obedient but lonely child, abandoned at times by his mother and desperate for a father figure, making him vulnerable to indoctrination by Muhammad.

Cooley said Malvo was 15 and left alone by his mother when he met Muhammad, "a man of manliness and discipline who showed him attention and taught him, in his mind, to be a man."

Malvo's obedience "made him incredibly vulnerable and susceptible to a man who was prepared to manipulate him, who took him in, used him, trained him, indoctrinated him," Cooley said. Muhammad turned Malvo into "his child soldier ... just as surely as a potter molds clay."

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