Sniper suspect changes mind on representation

Posted 12:04am October 24

by Jane Black
U-WIRE Washington Bureau

Accused Washington, D.C.-area sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad reversed his decision to represent himself Wednesday morning. The decision came two days after Muhammad, with no formal legal training, began a shaky self-defense.

The defendant surprised the nation when he announced on the first day of his trial that he would defend himself against two counts of capital murder, conspiracy, and a weapons offense. Muhammad, 42, and accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, are suspected of killing 10 people in a three-week shooting rampage that terrorized Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia last fall.

“I think that the jury will be grateful to him [Muhammad] for not making them suffer through a trail where the defendant doesn’t know what he is doing and representing himself,” said John K. Zwerling, a criminal defense attorney in Alexandria, Virginia. “Once he started the trial he probably realized that he made a big mistake — defending himself wasn’t as easy as he thought.”

Prince William County Circuit Judge LeRoy Millete Jr. did not offer an explanation for Muhammad’s decision.

“He had a nearly impossible task with good lawyers — now he has an impossible task by himself, as his own lawyer,” said Rodney Leffler, after Muhammad announced he would defend himself. Leffler is a prosecutor-turned defense attorney who practices in Fairfax County, Va.

The state-financed defense team of Peter Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro, who have been advising Muhammad since last year, will now return to the bench to defend Muhammad, a Gulf War Veteran. With only a high school education and no legal training, it was unclear whether Muhammad had the ability to aptly defend himself against the prosecution, expected to rely on scientific evidence linking Muhammad to the shootings.

Historically, defendants who have served as their own lawyers, such as Ted Bundy and Colin Ferguson, have not been able to win their cases.

Muhammad’s trial was moved 200 miles southeast of D.C. to Virginia Beach at the request of the defense, who felt it impossible to find jurors emotionally unaffected by one of history’s most highly publicized killing sprees.

After screening a pool of about 140 potential jurors, 12 jurors and three alternates were selected over four days. The jury is composed of 10 women and five men, 13 whom are white and two whom are black. “I think it [the jury selection] went much too quickly for a capital case of this variety, it troubles me,” said Zwerling.

The trial is predicted to last six weeks.

The prosecution is expected to argue that Muhammad’s motive for the shootings was part of a scheme to coerce the government to pay $10 million to halt the attacks. The prosecution plans to portray the defendant as the controlling captain of a killing team who orchestrated the shootings.

If Muhammad is found not guilty, he will not go free — several jurisdictions have a retainer on Muhammad for shootings he allegedly committed. He would likely go on trial in one of these D.C.-area counties. If the jury convicts Muhammad of capital murder, there are two options for punishment: life in prison without parole or death.

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