MANASSAS, Va. – The attorneys appointed to represent sniper suspects John Lee Malvo and John Allen Muhammad have had practically everything thrown at them in the courtroom, including a vicious left cross from a deranged client.
Peter Greenspun, representing Muhammad, was part of the legal team that represented NBC sportscaster Marv Albert on forcible-sodomy charges in 1997. Albert's accuser claimed that he bit her numerous times on the back and forced her to perform oral sex. The case concluded with an unexpected plea bargain; Albert pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge, received no jail time and had the conviction cleared from his record.
Jonathan Shapiro, also representing Muhammad, is currently co-counsel for Brian Regan, a retired Air Force sergeant who is awaiting trial on attempted espionage charges and faces the death penalty. Federal prosecutors say Regan tried to spy for Iraq, Libya and China and even sent a form letter to Saddam Hussein and other world leaders offering classified information for $13 million.
Shapiro has not been shy in criticizing the government's case, saying that "politics and John Ashcroft" are the reasons the government wants to execute his client in a case where no actual espionage was ever committed.
Shapiro also represented an Alexandria man, Gregory Murphy, on capital murder charges in the death of 8-year-old Kevin Shifflett. The boy was stabbed repeatedly while he played in the yard of his great-grandmother's house.
At the conclusion of a hearing in 2000, Murphy sucker-punched Shapiro, knocking him unconscious. Murphy, who was later diagnosed as schizophrenic and deemed incompetent to stand trial, had claimed Shapiro was part of a racist conspiracy against him.
Shapiro was taken out of the courtroom on a stretcher. Even after the punch, Shapiro tried to stay on the case. But a judge ruled the assault created a possible conflict of interest.
Joe Bowman, who worked with Shapiro on the Murphy case, said he was not surprised that Shapiro sought to continue to defend Murphy.
"He's an extremely dedicated criminal defense lawyer. He's really well-organized and thorough," Bowman said. "He excels in investigations and has a really good courtroom manner."
Greenspun, meanwhile, should be able to put his experience from the Albert trial to use in the Muhammad case, said Roy Black, the lead defense attorney in the Albert case.
"Once you've climbed Mount Everest, the smaller mountains become much easier," Black said.
The three-day Albert trial contained numerous twists, including a surprise prosecution witness who testified that Albert made an unwanted advance on her while wearing women's underwear.
Some criticized Greenspun and the rest of the defense team for being caught off guard, but Black said that criticism is unwarranted.
"You can never match the resources of the federal government. Even if Muhammad had Bill Gates' money, you couldn't match them," Black said.
Black, who is from Miami, said he selected Greenspun to work with him as local counsel in the Albert case because of his reputation in the region. Despite Greenspun's skills, Black said representing Muhammad will be an uphill battle.
"It's an extremely difficult case. The worst part is it's an extremely unpopular case where [the defendant] is accused of terrorizing the entire region," Black said.
Greenspun is a 49-year-old graduate of George Mason University Law School. Shapiro, 53, graduated from American University Law School.
Michael Arif, representing Malvo, is not as well known as Greenspun and Shapiro, but his colleagues say he is an effective advocate. Like Greenspun and Shapiro, he is experienced in death-penalty cases.
"He's really low-key," Bowman said. "He's very much at ease in the courtroom and he makes good judgment calls."
Arif has handled several death-penalty trials in Fairfax County, where Malvo will be prosecuted, with mixed results. In 2000, the state executed Bobby Lee Ramdass for the 1992 murder of a convenience store clerk. But Arif in 2001 successfully fought a capital murder charge for Sterling Fisher, who was instead sentenced to first-degree murder and life in prison.