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baltimoresun.com

Defendant impresses as 'smooth'

By Rona Marech

Sun reporter

May 5, 2006

ROCKVILLE

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He didn't take two hours and one minute, as he had threatened.

But John Allen Muhammad - who is acting as his own lawyer in a case in which he is accused of masterminding a deadly sniper rampage - did deliver a wide-ranging and personal presentation in court yesterday as jury selection gave way to opening statements shortly after 1 p.m.

Clean-cut, slender and wearing a charcoal suit, white shirt and gold and black tie, he stayed calm and collected throughout. He watched impassively during the prosecutors' occasionally gruesome multimedia demonstration and barely stumbled during an opening speech that drifted from his children to Plato, the Bible and his innocence. He raised his voice for emphasis on a few occasions but at times spoke so softly that he was hard to hear.

He did not seem nervous.

Muhammad's court appearance had been widely anticipated by legal observers and everyday people who had endured the Washington-area sniper rampage of 2002. What would it be like for someone who had been convicted - and sentenced to death - in another state to take center stage? Would he understand the legal procedures? Would he create a spectacle? Be disruptive?

One day into the trial, lay observers who attended mostly out of curiosity sounded almost impressed with Muhammad, despite the picture prosecutors painted of him as a brazen killer.

"It was a little melodramatic," said Kevin McLaughlin, a bricklayer from Olney. "But I thought he was pretty smooth. He was pretty articulate. I don't think he's ignorant."

Several potential jurors who had been dismissed, some of whom returned in the afternoon to watch from the audience, also said that Muhammad seemed much more "normal" than they had expected.

One said she thought Muhammad was another lawyer when she walked into the courtroom.

Another said that earlier in the week, he had caught a glimpse of the defendant's humanity in a smile.

"He was laughing like any other regular person would" at some first-day courtroom humor, said Justin Gean, 33, of Olney. "I was surprised."

Meghan Skelton, 35, a federal public defender from Bethesda, described Muhammad as "very professional and composed" during jury selection.

"He's an intelligent person, and he seems to have it together. I'm not sure what I expected," she said. "I represent people accused of these things all the time. I think people would be surprised to know how nice some of these people are to talk to."

Prosecutors took the floor first, after the jurors and alternates had been selected and after a lunch break.

Though the assistant state's attorney showed slides of murder victims and, at times, pointed an accusatory finger at Muhammad, he never flinched during her opening statement. Mostly, he sat with his chin cupped in his hand, fingers covering his mouth. Or he rested his head on his clasped hands. Occasionally, he leaned over to whisper to the lawyers appointed to advise him.

Then after a brief break, he stood, buttoned and unbuttoned his jacket, and began speaking from behind the wooden table that he and his standby lawyers had occupied all morning.

The 6-foot-1-inch Muhammad spoke in straightforward, informal language that was free of legalese. He was not interrupted, and the courtroom was quiet as spectators and reporters strained to hear him .

"I don't have to tell you my name. It is John Allen Muhammad" he said to the jurors. "Thanks for this opportunity to be here."

He went on to say that he had two options. "I can choose to cry or I can choose to fight," he said. "I haven't given up my rights to be free." He compared himself with a gazelle in Africa, a creature that he said has to be twice as fast as a lion to survive.

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