By Julie Scharper and Andrea F. Siegel
May 26, 2006
Muhammad, 45, stood slouching and subdued, a sharp contrast to his behavior earlier in the week when he shouted at prosecutors and belittled his alleged former accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo.
He is representing himself in his trial in Montgomery County, where he has been charged with six counts of murder stemming from the October 2002 sniper shootings.
In his opening statement, the Gulf War veteran told jurors that he and Malvo are innocent.
He said he would complete his defense presentation today and decide whether to call himself as a witness, a risky tactic that would open him to questioning by prosecutors.
"He's going to testify and say he didn't do it? And then on cross-examination they will make him look like an idiot," said University of Maryland law professor Abraham Dash, who is not involved in the case.
Because of constitutional protections against self-incrimination, prosecutors cannot call defendants to the witness stand but can question them if they testify. Given how poorly the case has gone for Muhammad, it might not matter, Dash said.
"He has nothing to lose by testifying. Or anything to gain," he said.
Most of the witnesses Muhammad asked court officials to summon never materialized. He missed the deadlines Montgomery County Circuit Judge James L. Ryan set to submit names of expert witnesses, and failed to provide enough information for subpoenas of others.
Of the eight who had testified through yesterday, three said they came to court reluctantly and one tried to ignore the subpoena but was brought to court by one of Muhammad's standby attorneys.
One went so far as to say that she hopes that jurors will not be swayed by her words.
"I'm hoping that my testimony amounts to nothing compared to the other evidence against him," witness Heidi Mansen said outside the courtroom yesterday. She said that she believes Muhammad is guilty.
Mansen testified that she saw a red car speeding away from the scene of one of the sniper shootings, although officers later determined that the car was not involved in the crime.
"I felt bad because I pointed out the wrong person," Mansen said. "Just because I saw something doesn't mean that really happened."
Another witness, Robert Metzger of Greenbelt, said he was summoned to court Tuesday but ignored the subpoena until one of Muhammad's standby lawyers, J. Wyndal Gordon, came to his home yesterday to take him to the courthouse.
He testified that he saw two adult men, one white and one possibly Hispanic, praying on the ground at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie three days before Iran Brown was shot there.
"What this has to do with this, I don't know," Metzger said while on the witness stand.
"That guy killed a lot of people," Metzger said outside the courtroom. "If I had my way, I wouldn't even be here."
Muhammad has flubbed his interrogation of police detectives, his questions cut short by a volley of sustained objections. Ryan denied a motion to consider out-of-state witnesses after Muhammad missed several deadlines.
Despite frequent whispered conversations with his standby attorneys, Muhammad's efforts to defend himself are hampered by his lack of legal finesse. Yesterday, Ryan sustained volleys of objections from the prosecutors that Muhammad's questions were leading, inappropriate or irrelevant.
Yesterday, Muhammad doggedly tried to ask a Secret Service agent about a report that could not be entered into evidence as prosecutors successfully blocked nearly every question. His attempts to grill a police detective who he believes tainted witnesses in the courthouse were thwarted by a barrage of objections.
Even when Muhammad was able to question witnesses, they did not add any substantial information. Elgin Jamison of Oxon Hill testified that he saw an unusual white van parked several hundred yards from one of the shooting sites an hour or more before the murder occurred. Early in the spate of shootings, which left 10 people dead and three injured in the Washington area, police released a sketch of a white box truck wanted in connection with the shootings.
Jamison was one of thousands who called tip lines and reported seeing white trucks or vans. Police later released a description of Muhammad's 1990 blue Chevrolet Caprice, which led to the arrest of Muhammad and Malvo.
Muhammad is on death row for a sniper murder in Virginia, and Malvo is serving multiple life sentences without parole for his role in several sniper shootings in that state.
Muhammad complained that the judge was unfairly siding with the prosecution.
On occasion, Ryan has walked him through the proper question to get at his point, at least once over the objection of prosecutors, who said Ryan shouldn't be helping Muhammad try his case.
In the first three weeks of the trial, jurors have heard from dozens of expert witnesses and law enforcement officers who have testified that ballistics, fingerprints and DNA link Muhammad to the shootings.
They have seen Muhammad's Caprice, which had been fitted with a gun port and contained the .223 Bushmaster rifle linked by forensics to the shootings. A laptop computer with maps marking the murder scenes and drafts of threatening letters found at the shootings were also found in the car.
Malvo, 21, explained this week the well-orchestrated system that he said he and Muhammad used to shoot with deadly precision. For 10 of the 13 of the shootings, Muhammad, hid in the trunk of the Caprice, poking the rifle out of the camouflaged gun port, Malvo testified. He has agreed to plead guilty to the same six sniper killings in Montgomery County for which Muhammad is being tried.
Legal experts said Muhammad is struggling to mount a cohesive defense in the face of a strong prosecution case.
"None of this amounts to anything," said Steven Benjamin, a Richmond, Va., criminal defense attorney who has followed the sniper cases for more than three years and is not involved in this one. "The case is over except for his ... efforts to play lawyer."
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