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Muhammad attorneys seek to overturn verdict

By Stephen Kiehl

Sun Staff

February 10, 2004

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Defense attorneys for convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad wanted to argue that their client suffered from an "abnormal brain" and "neurological deficits" about the time of the shootings that left 10 dead in October 2002, according to reports from mental health experts made public yesterday.

The information was not allowed into evidence at Muhammad's trial last fall, when a jury convicted him of two counts of capital murder and recommended a death sentence, because Muhammad refused to meet with the prosecution's mental health experts.

Defense attorneys said in motions filed yesterday to overturn the convictions that the jury should have been allowed to hear the evidence as it weighed whether death was an appropriate punishment. They also said jurors should not have been barred from hearing testimony about his "horrific childhood" and the abuse he suffered.

"This testimony would have been extremely dramatic, and it cannot be said with any degree of confidence that it would not have had an impact on at least one juror," wrote attorneys Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro. Death sentences must be unanimous; if one juror had held out, the sentence would have been life in prison.

Prosecutors, who will file their formal reply to the defense motions in about a week, dismissed the defense's neurologist yesterday as an expert for hire.

"That doctor sees things that other radiologists and neurologists don't see," said chief prosecutor Paul B. Ebert of Prince William County, Va.

Defense attorneys filed four motions to strike evidence and ask for an acquittal or a new trial, saying the convictions were based on "speculation, suspicion and innuendo." They said prosecutors never proved whether Muhammad, 43, or Lee Boyd Malvo fired the fatal shots.

They also argued that victim impact testimony presented during the guilt phase of the trial, emotional 911 calls and graphic autopsy photos of victims inflamed the jury. Some evidence admitted was deemed inadmissible in Malvo's trial.

Defense attorneys did not return phone calls yesterday. Ebert said he expects the verdict and recommended death sentence to stand.