VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - To the surprise of the jury, prosecutors in the John Allen Muhammad trial rolled the back half of a Chevrolet Caprice into the courtroom yesterday and demonstrated how a sniper could crawl into the trunk and remain unseen while firing a high-powered rifle through a concealed gun port above the license plate.
The 1990 Caprice, and its trunk, are critical to the prosecution's theory of how last fall's sniper shootings went down. They allege the car, with its tinted windows and beveled hole cut in the rear end, served as an ideal cover for Muhammad and his teen-age co-defendant, Lee Boyd Malvo, as they shot people at random.
Five men were needed to push the trunk replica down the courtroom aisle and position it in front of the jury box. As the jury then filed into the courtroom and saw the large trunk in front of them, one juror could be heard to say, "Oh my God."
The drama overshadowed some of the more crucial pieces of evidence that were presented to the jury yesterday morning. Ballistics experts testified that 13 shootings in September and October last year could be conclusively linked to the .223- caliber Bushmaster rifle found in Muhammad's Caprice upon his arrest. Another two shootings were conclusively linked to a revolver prosecutors say Malvo dropped after a shooting in Montgomery, Ala.
But the ballistics testimony - while critical to the prosecution's case - was dry and uneventful compared with what came in the afternoon. Before the car trunk was brought into the courtroom, defense attorneys vigorously objected to it, noting that the jury has seen many photographs of the car and its interior.
"There's no purpose to showing this trunk to the jury, except it's real dramatic and it makes a big splash," said defense lawyer Peter D. Greenspun. He also said the replica trunk, which had been hollowed out, was not a true representation of the actual Caprice's trunk, which contained luggage and debris.
But lead prosecutor Paul B. Ebert argued that the trunk would help the jury understand the state's theory of how the killings occurred, and he noted one witness testified to seeing a flash of light near the Caprice at the time of a sniper killing in Washington in October last year.
"They need to know how this happened, and this shows them how it happened," Ebert argued. He said the replica was worth "a thousand words."
Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. agreed with prosecutors. He also reminded lawyers that a police officer saw Muhammad in the car leaving a parking lot across from where Dean H. Meyers was shot in Manassas, Va., about a half-hour after that shooting. But the judge would not allow a separate, close-up replica of the hole in the trunk into court.
And so the jury was sent out while the trunk was wheeled into the courtroom. Attorneys carefully inspected it, comparing it to photos of Muhammad's Caprice, and Greenspun stuck his finger into the hole cut in the trunk. The judge also came down from the bench to take a look.
Wynn Warren, a visual information specialist with the FBI, testified that prosecutors asked him to produce the replica just three weeks ago, on Oct. 14 - the first day of the trial. Warren said he went to see the Caprice where it's being stored in Chesapeake, Va., a city adjacent to Virginia Beach, and took measurements.
He then acquired two 1990 Caprices from junkyards. He cut the rear end off of one - from the rear windshield to the tail lights, and attached to it the trunk lid from the second Caprice. He painted the car a dark blue color to closely resemble Muhammad's car, and he spray-painted the underside of the lid dark blue, like Muhammad's car.
Prosecutors say Muhammad spray-painted the lid underside so the flash from the rifle would not reflect as well.
Warren used a hacksaw to carve out the small hole through which a sniper is thought to have pointed the muzzle of the weapon. And Warren cut the rubber gasket that lines the trunk in two places so an 18-inch portion of it could be removed to provide access to the hole. That, too, duplicated what he found in Muhammad's Caprice, he said.
When Greenspun noted that the entry to the trunk on the replica was larger than the actual entry to the trunk in the car, the judge offered to take the jury to see the Caprice itself.
Millette seemed to be more eager than either the defense or prosecution for a field trip to see the car. The judge said he would hold arguments first thing this morning on whether the jury should be shown the car.
The replica trunk took up so much space that attorneys occasionally bumped into it while questioning witnesses. And when Warren stepped down, the judge said to him, "Go ahead and close the trunk so I can see everyone. I would say take your car with you ... ." Millette's voice trailed off as the courtroom dissolved into laughter.
Prosecutors also showed the jury yesterday a one-minute videotape that showed two police officers the approximate size of Muhammad and Malvo getting into the actual Caprice. On the video, the officer representing Muhammad climbs into the back seat, pulls up the back seat, which is hinged at the top, and crawls into the trunk.
A rifle similar to the Bushmaster was placed in the trunk, and the officer grabbed the rifle, pointed it through the hole in the trunk and fired. The video ends with a puff of smoke coming from the trunk, depicting the gunpowder that would have burned off in the process of firing the rifle.
Greenspun asked a Prince William County, Va., police officer who helped produce the tape if the scene was rehearsed before it was taped. The officer, Ralph Daigneau, replied, "Just as your client allegedly could have done, too" - a comment that later brought a defense request for a mistrial. It was denied by the judge.
The video was intended to show that the trunk was big enough to accommodate someone of Muhammad's size - 6-foot-1 and 179 pounds. Prosecutors have not explicitly said if they think Muhammad pulled the trigger in some or all of the shootings. But the video and testimony yesterday suggested that possibility to the jury.
Muhammad is charged with two counts of capital murder in the killing of civil engineer Dean H. Meyers at a Sunoco station north of Manassas. To secure the death penalty, prosecutors must convince the jury he was a "direct participant" in the crime. Prosecutors have said that Muhammad was the "captain" of a "killing team" and so it is irrelevant who actually fired the fatal shot.
Ballistics experts testified yesterday that the bullets that struck 13 of last fall's sniper victims across the country were conclusively fired from the Bushmaster rifle found in the Caprice. The experts also said that a .22-caliber revolver Malvo allegedly dropped near a robbery-shooting in Alabama was the same weapon used to shoot a restaurant owner and liquor store owner in Prince George's County in September last year.
In one victory for the defense yesterday, the judge would not allow the prosecutors to put on the witness stand an immigration employee from Washington state who talked to Muhammad when Malvo was arrested by immigration authorities there. Ebert said Muhammad told the witness he was "a sniper" and "expert in urban warfare."
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