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Malvo to face former mentor

Legal experts expect him to make critical links for sniper jury

By Andrea F. Siegel

Sun reporter

May 22, 2006

Rockville

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Lee Boyd Malvo is expected to take the stand against the man who calls him "my son" as early as today, in what promises to be the most dramatic moment so far in the Montgomery County murder trial of John Allen Muhammad.

But the appearance by the 21-year-old Jamaican - who, like Muhammad, has been convicted of a sniper shooting in Virginia - will be significant in other ways, experts say.

Although a boastful Malvo admitted to sniper shootings in taped interviews with Fairfax County, Va., police after his arrest in October 2002, he never testified at his or Muhammad's murder trials in that state. His account is expected to provide a strong counterpoint to Muhammad's claim that he is being wrongly accused, legal experts say. Muhammad, 45, who has been sentenced to death in Virginia, is representing himself in the Montgomery County trial.

Malvo's testimony could also fill in gaps about the 2002 sniper shootings that terrorized the Washington area.

Observers say Malvo's testimony and willingness to face his former mentor will show how far removed he is from Muhammad's iron fist.

"I think it will be powerful in the sense that it is a dramatic confrontation," said defense lawyer Andrew Jezic, a former prosecutor and co-author of a Maryland manual on confessions.

Malvo is expected to tell jurors that Muhammad committed five of the six killings with which they are charged and for which Muhammad is on trial, a source familiar with the case confirmed. Legal experts said Malvo's testimony is not necessary to obtain a conviction but won't hurt.

This account by Malvo would match what mental health experts testified at his 2003 sniper trial that he had told them. But it is at odds with his claim to police shortly after his arrest a year earlier that he alone was the triggerman, leaving a question of which account to believe.

Dewey Cornell, a defense psychologist from Malvo's 2003 trial, said in an interview Friday that Malvo's early statements showed his pathological relationship with Muhammad but that the younger man has gone through a profound change. Confronting Muhammad - with whom he'll come face to face during cross-examination - is "momentous" for Malvo, said Cornell, who remains in contact with him.

Awaiting trial in 2002 and 2003 and since his conviction, Malvo has been in touch with friends and family from Jamaica, and pulled away from Muhammad, to whom he is not related. The process has been akin to a person being brought back from a cult, Cornell said.

"I know that he is willing and committed to tell the truth," Cornell said.

"At one time, Lee was willing to do anything, even commit murder, for John Allen Muhammad," Cornell said. Now, incarcerated for life, he has come to see his former Svengali as the man whose empty promises stole his life, he said.

"Lee is left with terrible guilt and remorse. You think you are on a noble mission, later you discover that what you did was plain murder," the University of Virginia psychologist said.

According to defense testimony at Malvo's trial, Muhammad had told the adolescent that they would build a utopian community with $10 million they would extort from the government and that their shootings would inspire a revolution that would destroy the United States.

Malvo was 15 when he fell under the sway of Muhammad. His mother had used Malvo as collateral for the forged travel documents that Muhammad sold her so she could leave Antigua for the United States.

Malvo became what one of his lawyers at his Virginia trial called a " cult of one" to the older man. He converted from Seventh-day Adventist to Islam at Muhammad's insistence, trained as a sniper in Muhammad's control, spouted anti-American sentiments learned from Muhammad and became an accomplished and brainwashed foot soldier on Muhammad's mission, his defense maintained.

When arrested Oct. 24, 2002, with Muhammad in a trash-strewn blue Chevrolet Caprice that authorities said had been transformed into a mobile sniper's lair, Malvo took credit for all the shootings.

But his credibility will be fodder for the defense. When questioned by police soon after his arrest, he bragged about his shooting prowess, snickered as he spoke of deaths and laughed as he described James L. "Sonny" Buchanan Jr.'s lawn mower continuing on the grass while the mortally wounded landscaper stumbled.

Eight months later, no longer protecting his "father," Malvo admitted to two killings - the first on Feb. 16, 2002, and the last on Oct. 22, 2002, his defense said.

In the first, Keenya Cook, 21, was shot in the face when she answered the door at her aunt's home in Tacoma, Wash. Her aunt had testified against Muhammad in his bitter divorce and custody dispute.

In the last, driver Conrad Johnson, 35, was shot as he prepared to begin his Ride On bus route near the Aspen Hill section of Silver Spring. Malvo's admission that he was the shooter squares with some of the forensic evidence, which authorities say puts Malvo's DNA on items in the woods from which police believe the fatal shot came.

Malvo's attorney has not returned calls seeking comment. Prosecutors have also declined to publicly discuss the case.

Whatever Malvo's reaction to Muhammad is in the courtroom, it cannot harm the prosecution, said a person who knows Malvo but did not want to be identified because of Muhammad's continuing trial. Malvo can provide detail about crimes, which would benefit the prosecution. If he withers on the witness stand, Muhammad's hold over him will be obvious to a jury, the person said.

Legal experts note that it is possible to obtain a conviction against Muhammad without Malvo - it was done in Virginia - because, they say, the circumstantial case against the Persian Gulf War veteran is solid and overwhelming. But Malvo's first-person account can wrap together what jurors have heard in testimony by forensic experts and others, legal experts say.

For example, Walter Dandridge, a federal firearms examiner, conclusively tied the .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle found in the Caprice to four of the six killings in Montgomery County, and a total of 12 of the 14 sniper shootings presented to jurors.

David McGill, a Montgomery County police evidence collector, linked the rifle to Muhammad's car. And FBI analyst Brendan Shea testified that Muhammad's DNA was on the sight for that rifle - and perhaps on the rifle itself, along with Malvo's.

Though prosecutors can pull them together in closing arguments, Malvo can connect the dots sooner, giving jurors reference points to think about while the defense presents its case.

"He is going to make some critical links in the evidence," said Christopher L. Tritico, who served as a defense lawyer for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh.

Though Muhammad obtains advice from any of three standby lawyers, he is neither a skilled nor detached questioner. That raises the possibility that the way Muhammad frames questions to Malvo will backfire on Muhammad, Tritico said.

"He can say, 'Isn't it true I told you this?' and implicate himself," Tritico said.

Even the inconsistencies in Malvo's statements - and highlighting inconsistencies is a hallmark of cross-examination - are unlikely to undermine the prosecution's case, predicted Robert F. Horan Jr., the Fairfax County commonwealth's attorney who obtained a life sentence without parole for Malvo.

"For prosecutors there is no downside," he said. "Muhammad is not a lawyer. He just doesn't know so many different things about cross-examining people."

Sources close to the case say Malvo will plead guilty, which will add multiple life-without-parole sentences in Maryland to his Virginia life-without-parole sentences for three sniper shootings there, two of them fatal.

But Horan, saying Malvo would not do something for nothing, speculated that he might be angling for something as seemingly minor as better prison accommodations.

Paul B. Ebert, who prosecuted Muhammad for capital murder in Prince William County, Va., added of Malvo: "It would be interesting to see what he's got to say."

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com