Juries in sniper trials see different sides of defendants

CHESAPEAKE, Va. -- One jury heard hours of sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo's taped confessions, punctuated by his giggles and sound effects and proud descriptions of a paramilitary mission to extort money in the nation's capital region.

Another jury, looking for insight into the mind of convicted sniper mastermind John Allen Muhammad as they decide whether to recommend the death penalty, has seen little beyond old home movies of him playing with his children, and his bizarre but short-lived attempt to represent himself at trial.

Although prosecutors in the two cases presented much of the same crime scene evidence, the jurys' direct exposure to the men on trial for their lives has been dramatically different.

"At the end of the Muhammad trial, we will have no better idea of why this happened than we did at the beginning," said Steven D. Benjamin, a Richmond defense attorney experienced in capital murder cases. "But Malvo's trial has promised to explain what everyone wants to know: who could do something like this and how a child can be turned into a killing machine."

During a week of testimony on the shootings that killed 10 and wounded three in the Washington area last fall, Malvo's jurors heard more than three hours of taped police and FBI interviews.

In them, Malvo confessed to pulling the trigger in each shooting, bragged about his shooting prowess and explained the sniper plan by weaving together the philosophical, logistical and nonsensical.

"I intended to kill them all," said Malvo, 17 at the time of the interviews.

At times, he sounds childlike and vulnerable, as when he asked police about the whereabouts of his "father," Muhammad, and if he could have raisins. At other times he sounds maniacal and savvy, as when he imitated a lawnmower noise while describing the killing of a landscaper and later chided detectives for asking him a "leading question."

And he is often friendly, insisting he is a "good guy," and suggesting one detective go on a "grape fast" to cleanse her system -- but not tell anyone she got the idea from "the sniper."

Prosecutors say Malvo knew exactly what he was doing, while defense lawyers argue he was brainwashed by Muhammad and legally insane at the time of the shootings. He is charged only in the killing of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, shot outside a Home Depot store in Falls Church on Oct. 14, 2002.

A short drive away, in Virginia Beach, Muhammad's jury, which convicted him last week in the killing of Dean Harold Meyers at a Manasass gas station and resumes sentencing deliberations Monday, has heard no confession, no testimony from the defendant and no mental health information.

Malvo had anticipated that, telling police after his arrest that Muhammad was smart and would "tease" them but wouldn't say anything significant. Malvo also suggested the "team," as he repeatedly called it, had devised a plan governing who would say what if they were caught.

"He told us 'You won't get anything from him,"' June Boyle, the Fairfax County detective who interrogated Malvo, testified Friday.

On the other hand, Malvo told detectives "I'll tell you what I can say," Boyle recalled. On the tapes played Friday, he repeated variations of "Some of the answers I won't tell you" and "You're supposed to figure that out."

He told police the shootings were all about money and would have continued until the government paid them off if they hadn't been captured.

He also said he expected them both to be executed.

"That's the consequence of failure, death," he told FBI Agent Brad Garrett on one tape.

What Muhammad's jury knows of him personally comes from the two days in which he represented himself, other people's testimony and home videos of him playing with his children. Before the trial began, Muhammad refused to meet with the state's mental health evaluators, which barred his lawyers from presenting their psychological evidence.

Muhammad has appeared mostly stone-faced during the trial and denied involvement during his rambling opening statement.

Prosecutors in Malvo's case, who are expected to wrap up their case Monday, say he was Muhammad's willing partner.

They presented evidence from 12 shootings last week, and a forensic expert linked bullet fragments from 11 of them to the semiautomatic rifle found in Muhammad's car when the two were captured.

Malvo's attorneys argue that he was indoctrinated by Muhammad and should be found innocent by reason of insanity. They say Malvo's references to the spree as a carefully planned "battle" show that Muhammad had transformed him into a "child soldier."

The defense expects to put up to nine mental health experts and more than 60 lay witnesses on the stand.

Benjamin said the incriminating confessional tapes could end up bolstering the defense.

"The prosecution has failed to appreciate how bizarre these tapes are. The prosecution has concentrated on the words and the laughter and the demeanor without appreciating the meaning behind it all," Benjamin said. "They are completely consistent with the defense theory of indoctrination."