Then he presented his chronology. He spoke about pulling his son from the ocean and saving his life. He talked - noticeably choking up for the only time - of praying with his daughter. Then he arrived at the day the courts awarded custody of his children to their mother. He called it "my September 11th."

He was in the Washington area at the time of the sniper attacks looking for his children, he said. But the evidence will show that "Muhammad is innocent," he said.

Though he had promised to speak for one minute longer than prosecutors, who requested two hours for their opening statements, Muhammad finished in less than 20 minutes.

He has been described as "evil" and "wicked," he said in closing, but has also been called "brother, John, Daddy, uncle, friend."

"What matters is what I answer to," he said. After looking down and then up again, he added, "I answer to dignity and respect."

Those are two things he isn't necessarily going to get in the courtroom on the third floor of the Judicial Center in this suburban county seat.

"What he spoke about is not relevant to the trial," said Ramesh Marag, 58, a Bethesda engineer who watched the last 20 minutes of the opening statements. "I wondered what it had to do with the case at hand. I was puzzled."

But when Muhammad talked about fighting for his life every day, it struck a "human chord," Marag said.

"OK, we all have to do that. One can relate to that quite easily," he said. "Where it goes from there is where it gets interesting."

rona.marech@baltsun.com