CHESAPEAKE, Va. - Consumed with righting racial inequality and injustice, sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo became yesterday the latest young defendant to use the film The Matrix as part of an insanity defense to explain killings that seem to have no clear explanation.
The 1999 film has been used, with some success, in at least three other murder cases in which young defendants attempted to justify their crimes with allusions to the movie's philosophy that the world people live in is only a dream sequence controlled by a computer. Violence is condoned as a way to get out of the fake, oppressive world of The Matrix.
More than a hundred drawings and notes found in Malvo's jail cell, as well as the testimony yesterday of a social worker who met with the teen-age sniper suspect, indicate that the youth had an obsession with The Matrix. He told detectives and the social worker to watch the film to understand the motive behind the sniper shootings.
"Mr. Malvo wanted me to know how unjust this society was and how important it was for them to build a new and just society," said court-appointed forensic social worker Carmeta Albarus, who spent 70 hours with Malvo this year. "I recognized something was amiss with this Jamaican boy who had not been in this country three years and is speaking as if he had lived here his whole life and suffered years of social injustice."
Albarus' testimony dovetailed with the drawings introduced into evidence Wednesday. In those ink sketches on blue-lined notebook paper, Malvo creates a heroic portrait of Neo, the central character in The Matrix, and makes numerous references to the film's slogans of freeing one's mind.
"The outside force has arrived, free yourself of the Matrix 'control,'" Malvo wrote on one drawing that depicted him handcuffed with the word Bondage on his chest. "Free first your mind. Trust me!! The body will follow."
The 'Matrix' defense
This is not the first time a disenfranchised teen-ager has used the film as an explanation for violent acts.
Two notable Matrix defenses, in San Francisco and Ohio, saw judges accept insanity pleas based on a defendant's infatuation with the movie.
In the San Francisco case, a 27-year-old Swiss exchange student said he dismembered his landlady in May 2000 because she was emitting "evil vibes" and he was afraid of being "sucked into the Matrix," according to news reports. The case did not go to trial after the judge accepted the insanity plea.
Last year in Hamilton, Ohio, a 36-year-old bartender shot her landlady three times with a pistol. She said her landlady had been controlling her mind and justified the killing by telling the court: "They commit a lot of crimes in The Matrix." Her insanity plea was accepted.
Robert F. Horan Jr., lead prosecutor in the Malvo trial, faced The Matrix defense in another case he prosecuted this year - that of Joshua Cooke, a 19-year-old Oakton, Va., resident who killed his parents with a 12-gauge shotgun and blamed the movie.
Cooke's attorney said his client believed he was living in the virtual reality world of The Matrix when he shot his parents. Horan argued that the defense was nonsense, and the judge later sentenced Cooke to 40 years in prison.
"How many million people have seen this movie and how many have committed murder?" asked Horan rhetorically during a Boston Globe interview.
'A common theme'
Some legal experts say the film may be no more than a convenient framework to explain crimes committed by people who do not exhibit typical forms of insanity.
"If you cast aside the notion that the laws of the land matter, it allows us to behave in a very different way. It gives us license," said John Kennedy, director of the University of Cincinnati's Institute of Psychiatry and Law. "There's a common theme of oppression and unfairness that requires abandoning the status quo and turning to a new way, and it just so happens that this behavior and the movie express that same theme."
It was a theme that appears to have particularly appealed to Malvo. He told Albarus, the social worker, that he and Muhammad planned to take 70 boys and 70 girls to a farm to raise them to be "superchildren" who would propagate a perfect society. The $10 million demanded for an end to the sniper shootings was to be used to buy the land and equipment for the compound, Albarus said.
"They were going to be trained and sent to different parts of the world to bring about a just system, because he thought a just system was needed," Albarus said. "He felt very confident that this could be done."
Malvo as Neo
Albarus said she saw Malvo as the Neo character in The Matrix. Played by Keanu Reeves, Neo leads a small band who become aware that they are living in an alternate reality. They fight their way out of a manufactured "reality" to regain control of their lives from the malevolent forces that are controlling them and all others.
"I saw certain patterns in The Matrix regarding Lee," the social worker said. She said she saw convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad as the character Morpheus, who is Neo's mentor and plays a role in his life similar to the one Muhammad played in Malvo's - that of a father figure who leads the way to the truth.
The oppression theme from the film carries over into Malvo's drawings. In one elaborate sketch, he shows a black man hanging by his wrists and being whipped by Uncle Sam, the well-known symbol of America, holding a money bag in one hand and a whip in the other.
Elsewhere in the drawings, mostly done from January to March of this year, a black figure appears to be hanged near the caption, "We refuse to be oppressed, and when you stand in our way we will crush you, destroy you. Total destruction only solution." The words destroy and destruction were underlined twice.
The pages contain anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-white and anti-gay sentiments. One illustration shows the White House in the cross hairs of a rifle scope with the caption: "Sept. 11 we will ensure will look like a picnic to you. ... Welcome to the new war. You are not safe anywhere at anytime."
In the drawings and letters, Malvo apologizes to Muhammad for his "failure." Authorities have said Malvo was supposed to be acting as lookout the night the pair was captured in their car at a Frederick County rest stop. Instead, Malvo was sleeping when a SWAT team stormed the vehicle.
In another sketch, Malvo writes: "I'll be back and next time whatsoever my endeavor is 'I will not fail.'"
Experts say such talk may be a way for Malvo to prepare himself for his possible fate. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty - a sentence already imposed on Muhammad last week by a Virginia Beach jury. Such notions might also have been a way for Malvo to condition himself to commit the sniper killings, experts say.
Malvo's lawyers do not argue that he was not involved in the shootings. But they contend that he cannot be held responsible because of the intense indoctrination he suffered at the hands of Muhammad.
"The 9/11 terrorists spoke this way, and they had to perform a similar process of desensitization," said Kennedy. "It's not a comfortable human thing to destroy yourself. It's saying, 'I don't need to worry about this world. It's all an illusion. I'll be better off [elsewhere].'"
The drawings were submitted as evidence by the Malvo defense team, in an apparent attempt to show the jury the extent of the alleged brainwashing inflicted by Muhammad. For months after his arrest, Malvo refused to speak ill of Muhammad, and the drawings show that he considered him his father and a "brave man."
The process of breaking down that "step-by-step indoctrination" has been a slow one, defense attorneys said, but it reached a critical point in August when Albarus showed Malvo a videotape of people he knew and places he had been in Jamaica.
The memories, Albarus said, made Malvo break down in tears.