Published May 15, 2006
ROCKVILLE, Md. – John Allen Muhammad hid his defense strategy from his former attorneys, holding it so close that he fired them rather than reveal how he planned to prove his self-professed innocence in six Washington-area sniper killings.
Two weeks into his second trial in the October 2002 killings, Muhammad has yet to put on his defense. But some of his plan has trickled out through statements in court and cross-examination of witnesses.
Muhammad, who is now representing himself, is trying to poke holes of doubt for jurors in the established narrative that he and accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo roamed the region for three weeks, killing 10 people and wounding three. Because no one saw him, he implies, there is no hard evidence he was the sniper.
"Does our law condemn a person first, before we have heard and known what he's been doing?" Muhammad asked during his opening statement, quoting Nicodemus from the Bible. "The word 'knowing' implies having direct knowledge of the subject at hand, direct seeing of what was going on."
Muhammad, 45, is charged with six deaths in Montgomery County. He is already on death row in Virginia for another sniper killing. This second trial, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, is billed as insurance in case his Virginia conviction is ever thrown out.
Muhammad has asked many witnesses whether they saw the shooter or have "direct knowledge" about the culprit. All said no. To counter reports of he and his Chevrolet Caprice near shooting sites, he questions whether witnesses' memories were swayed by media coverage after his arrest.
He also challenges medical examiners, trying to get them to concede that a handgun, not the high-powered Bushmaster rifle police found in the Caprice, could be the weapon. And Muhammad mentions white vans, playing on authorities' initial belief that the killers were in a van or box truck.
Yet Muhammad faces some seemingly insurmountable legal challenges. Prosecutors have forensic evidence that most of the .223-caliber bullets used came from the Bushmaster. Muhammad's DNA was found on the gun. Jurors are expected to see the car, which was rigged with a hole in the trunk where a shooter could fire undetected.
"You've got a guy in possession of the weapon, which is pretty damning evidence," said Paul Ebert, Prince William County commonwealth's attorney, who prosecuted Muhammad in Virginia. "The fact nobody saw him do it, that's pretty typical of murders."
Muhammad also wants Malvo, whom he still calls his "son," to testify in his defense. But Malvo is expected to plead guilty to the same six killings and testify against him.
Judge James Ryan allowed Muhammad in March to remove his two court-appointed attorneys. According to two psychiatrist reports filed by those public defenders, Muhammad refused to share any information about his plans with them, saying they were secret. Both psychiatrists diagnosed mental illness.
He also defended himself in his first trial in Virginia. He gave an opening statement and questioned a few witnesses, but he gave the case back to his attorneys because he had a toothache. In Maryland, he has three standby attorneys who provide legal advice and sit with him at the defense table, but who are not allowed to address the court.
Muhammad wears stylish suits borrowed from one of the attorneys, totes legal texts and documents to court and listens attentively to testimony. He is polite and appears unfazed by the testimony of victims' relatives and survivors.
He pushes police officers on the stand, trying to expose discrepancies in reports they wrote that could undercut their credibility. Perhaps wisely, he hasn't questioned victims who survived sniper shootings. He objects to gory crime-scene testimony that could sway jurors.
But he also badgers some witnesses with repeated questions about police reports, statements and autopsies. His objections and motions are usually overruled.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle he faces is his notoriety — most of the jurors said during the jury selection they believed he was guilty, as do witnesses who come before him.
"He's fishing, and he doesn't have a clue," said Steven Bailey, a Prince William County police officer who testified about his brief conversation with Muhammad after the Oct. 9, 2002, killing of Dean Meyers in Manassas, Virginia.
Other witnesses say Muhammad confuses them. Muhammad asked Troy Mason, a police cadet who found a shell casing near the Oct. 7 shooting of a middle school student, whether he would recognize a rifle like the Bushmaster if he saw it on the ground. Mason said the question didn't make sense.
"I don't understand the shenanigans of his doing the things he is doing," Mason said after his testimony.