Greenspun, head of a four-lawyer firm in Fairfax, has a similar reputation in the legal community. James M. Hingeley Jr., a public defender in Charlottesville, Va., and past president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, calls Greenspun "a top-notch criminal trial lawyer."

"He's always thoroughly prepared. He's skillful in trial. He's dedicated to his clients and he gives 100 percent," Hingeley says.

In the Muhammad case, the two experienced attorneys - each has been a lawyer for more than two decades - have found new challenges.

On the first day of trial testimony Muhammad sidelined his lawyers, choosing instead to represent himself.

"We did not see that coming," says Greenspun, adding that he and Shapiro learned of Muhammad's plan an hour before opening statements began Oct. 20. "We had no notice whatsoever."

But, thanks to an abscessed tooth and a little prodding by Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr., Muhammad turned the legal reins back over to Greenspun and Shapiro two days later. Despite the episode, Shapiro says, "John has always been a cooperative client."

The prosecution's three-week presentation of its case, led by Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert, was largely a parade of witnesses, medical examiners, victims and victims' relatives, which the defense says also proved challenging.

"We've asked few or no questions of most of the witnesses," Greenspun says. "It just would have been inappropriate to cross-examine many of these people."

In court, Greenspun also has accused prosecutors of turning the courtroom theatrical with some of their exhibits.

"There's no purpose to showing this trunk to the jury, except it's real dramatic and it makes a big splash," he told Judge Millette just before prosecutors had a full-size replica of the rear of Muhammad's dark blue Chevy Caprice wheeled into the tiny courtroom.

Although Greenspun and Shapiro are polished litigators, they have very different courtroom demeanors.

Greenspun greeted most of the commonwealth's witnesses with a curt but cordial "Hi. How are you?" before plowing ahead with questions. Shapiro, who comes across as more subdued, usually introduced himself to the witnesses like this: "I'm Jonathan Shapiro. I have a few questions for you."

Outside the courtroom, the two seem like jokesters and old friends, each taking good-natured jabs at the other - and at themselves.

"It's highly amusing to see your picture in the paper all the time," Shapiro says of the attention the Muhammad case has brought them.

"Particularly the back of my head," the balding Greenspun adds.

"That is amusing," the full-locked Shapiro jokes back.

The two retreat after court recesses each evening to a dull-gray, windowless room that they like to call "the brain trust" of the Muhammad case. Inside, above the mountains of paperwork and stacks of file boxes, they have hung posters of Monty Python and Groucho Marx - the latter both lawyers describe as their hero.

The attorneys say they seek as many reprieves from the gravity of the trial as they can. At times, they say, it can seem as though Muhammad's five-person defense team, which includes Christie Leary, a 28-year-old attorney, and two legal assistants, is up against the world.

Shapiro says he has gotten a few of those "are you out of your mind?" phone calls, and Greenspun says he received four or five nasty e-mails after taking the case. And just recently, someone mailed them a letter - via the courthouse - that called them a few choice names.

But Greenspun's mother, Zelda Greenspun, who lives near Philadelphia and says she is addicted to media accounts of the trial, says she tries to keep her son's case in perspective.

"It is such a horrendous crime," she says, reciting what she tells acquaintances when they question why her son would get involved with it. "But we don't know who did it, and everybody's entitled to a defense.

"Besides, Peter does like a good fight."

Sun staff writer Stephanie Desmon contributed to this article.