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Muhammad questions survivor

Sniper suspect cross-examines her as prosecution builds its case

By Andrea F. Siegel

Sun reporter

May 10, 2006

ROCKVILLE

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In a strange courtroom drama, a survivor of the October 2002 sniper shootings in the Washington area came face to face yesterday with the man suspected of trying to kill her.

Caroline Seawell, 47, wounded in the parking lot of a Spotsylvania County, Va., shopping center, coolly answered the questions posed by convicted murderer John Allen Muhammad, who is representing himself in his trial on six murder charges in Montgomery County.

"How're you doing, ma'am?" Muhammad said, rising to address the witness seated some 25 feet away from him.

"Fine, thank you," she replied.

And so began yesterday's encounter between Muhammad, already on Virginia's death row for one of the sniper killings, and one of the few people to survive one of the sniper shots.

Muhammad can cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses, though he is barred from approaching them. He briefly questioned Seawell, the first survivor to testify in the Montgomery County trial now in its second week.

He asked Seawell about what she heard on the afternoon of Oct. 4, 2002, as she slammed the hatch on her Toyota Sienna minivan after loading a wreath and scarecrow inside.

"The sound I heard was the bullet hitting the car," she replied.

Muhammad asked her if she heard a gunshot.

"Not that I remember," said Seawell, who now lives in Columbia, S.C.

He also quizzed her about her stance at the rear of her vehicle, with one of his standby lawyers turning this way and that to approximate her position. Seawell's testimony was similar to that which she gave at Muhammad's 2003 trial in Virginia Beach.

"As I was slamming the door down, I felt a pain in my back and then in my front, about the same time I heard something hit the car," Seawell testified. The mother of two added, "I dropped to the ground, and I prayed that God would let me live so that I could take care of my kids."

The bullet had torn through her diaphragm, lung and liver before exiting her chest. Her injuries came a day after five people were killed - four in Montgomery County and one in Washington - by sniper shots. The first Montgomery County victim was killed the evening of Oct. 2, commencing a three-week rampage in which 13 people were shot, 10 fatally.

Lee Boyd Malvo, who told police he was the junior member of the sniper team, has pleaded guilty in Seawell's shooting. He is serving life prison terms for that and two fatal sniper shootings in Virginia.

Seawell, escorted from the courtroom by police, would not discuss her testimony.

Muhammad did not question a second survivor, Iran Brown, who was 13 when he was shot after being dropped off by his aunt at a Bowie middle school on Oct. 7, 2002. During Iran's testimony, Muhammad gave the youth, now 17, the studious gaze with which he has observed other witnesses.

The teen recounted that he had been kicked off the school bus for three days for eating candy during a ride. After he was felled by a gunshot and called out to his aunt, she whisked him to a nearby medical clinic, which sent him to Children's Hospital in Washington. Her quick action is credited with helping to save him.

He lost 80 percent of his stomach, part of his spleen and had to learn to walk again. Now, he said, he wants to play basketball for Duke University.

"I know he doesn't want to be here," Jerome Brown, the teenager's uncle said outside the courtroom. "As a family, we have just gotten our lives back on track. I don't think a kid should have to go through this over and over again."

Iran Brown's testimony sets the stage for prosecutors to present key evidence collected in the woods near Tasker Middle School. A chiropractor testified in the earlier trial to seeing Muhammad and Malvo in Muhammad's Chevrolet Caprice outside the school an hour before the teen was shot.

Jeanette Adkins, executive director of the Washington-based National Organization for Victim Assistance, said reactions to defendants vary among victims.

She said of Seawell: "Being that composed, no matter what may have been going on inside of her, may have been her way of showing him he has not taken control of her life."

Earlier yesterday, Myrtha Charlot Cinada became overwhelmed with tears as she took the witness stand to identify her father from a photograph. At Judge James L. Ryan's suggestion, she took a few minutes to compose herself in an area behind the courtroom. Her father, 72-year-old Pascal Charlot, was fatally shot in the hand and near his throat about 9:15 p.m. Oct. 3, 2002, as he stood on a bustling corner in Northwest Washington.

Yesterday marked the third time that Burnell Irby, a high school teacher and football coach, has testified in a sniper trial; he was called to the stand in Malvo's and Muhammad's Virginia trials to describe the gunshot that felled Charlot. But it was the first time he had to answer Muhammad's questions.

"I didn't find him intimidating - he thinks he is," Irby said outside the courtroom.

Testimony yesterday also placed Muhammad's car near Seawell's shooting minutes after it took place, as well as a block from Charlot's slaying around the time the Haitian immigrant was slain. But a Washington police officer's testimony about stopping Muhammad's car about two hours before Charlot was killed a few minutes drive south of that scene was a reminder of missed opportunities. The officer had stopped Muhammad for failing to stop at two stop signs and possibly going over a 25 mph speed limit and issued a verbal warning but no ticket after his license and registration checked out.

In the trial that began Friday, prosecutors have so far concluded testimony about six victims, the first five in Montgomery County: James D. Martin, killed on Oct. 2; James L. "Sonny" Buchanan Jr., Premkumar A. Walekar, Sarah Ramos and Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, killed the morning of Oct. 3; and then Charlot in Washington that night.

Medical examiner testimony in the past two days pointed to each of those victims - and the final victim, Conrad Johnson - being gunned down by a high-velocity weapon. Police recovered a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle from the Caprice when Muhammad and Malvo were arrested Oct. 24.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com
Sun reporter Laura Cadiz contributed to this article.