VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Jurors in the John Allen Muhammad trial have become used to seeing tearful people in the courtroom, as witnesses describe how their family members were killed by a sniper's bullets. But yesterday, jurors saw tears coming from an unlikely person - Muhammad himself.
In his most explicit display of emotion since his murder trial began four weeks ago, Muhammad hung his head, closed his eyes and wept as the director of a homeless shelter talked about how Muhammad treated his children in a loving and caring way and never raised his voice or a hand to them.
"They were immaculately dressed - not new clothes but clean - and he gave them a lot of attention," said Albert Archer, director of the Lighthouse Mission in Bellingham, Wash., as tears streamed down Muhammad's cheeks. "There were times after their meals that he would take out toothbrushes and give them to the children to brush their teeth."
It was the first extended discussion at the trial of Muhammad's three children - John Jr., now 13, Salena, 11, and Taalibah, 10 - who were taken by his former wife, Mildred, to Maryland a year before the sniper shootings began. Prosecutors believe one possible motive for the killings was to terrorize Mildred and possibly take the children back.
Two witnesses said yesterday that Muhammad treated his children lovingly and took care to attend to their needs, enrolling them in schools and frequently playing with them. Defense attorneys used that testimony to paint a sympathetic portrait of their client as a man who cared deeply for his children but unraveled when they were taken away.
Muhammad had taken the children to Antigua in the spring of 2001. When he returned to Washington state that fall and enrolled the children in school, they were seized by authorities and turned over to their mother. Mildred Muhammad secretly took them to Clinton, Md., and Muhammad became obsessed with finding them, authorities have said.
Muhammad grew upset and withdrawn when the children disappeared, wearing the same clothes for days and not shaving regularly, testified long-time friend Robert Holmes. Holmes occasionally let Muhammad and his children stay with him in Tacoma, Wash., before their mother took them away.
"He said he knew where Mildred was," Holmes said. "She was somewhere in the D.C. area. It was just a matter of pinpointing her location."
The testimony gave the jurors, for the first time, a suggestion of why Muhammad was in the Washington region last fall. It may be all the jurors will hear about that possible theory of the killings. Judge LeRoy F. Millette is not allowing prosecutors to present evidence regarding Muhammad's relationship with his former wife.
There was plenty of talk, however, about Muhammad's relationship with his alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, 18. Holmes said that he first met Malvo early last year, and he recalled an unusual introduction that would carry a particular resonance after the events of last fall.
"John introduced him to me and said his name is Lee and said he's a sniper," Holmes testified. A prosecutor then slowly repeated his words to the jury and asked about Malvo's reaction. "Lee just smiled," Holmes said.
Holmes, who met Muhammad when they enlisted in the Army in 1985, said that when his friend visited he carried a Bushmaster rifle in a case in a duffel bag, and that Muhammad and Malvo went to a shooting range for target practice. Holmes, an auto mechanic, also said that Muhammad tried to make a silencer for the Bushmaster in his shop.
"He said, 'Imagine the damage you could do if you could shoot with a silencer,'" Holmes told the court. He said Muhammad made two or three silencers, working from instructions in a book, but none of them worked.
Holmes said Muhammad treated Malvo the way he treated his children - with respect and never with violence. But after the sniper shootings began in the Washington region last fall, Holmes said, he became suspicious. And the day after an FBI analyst was shot at a Home Depot in Falls Church, Va., Holmes called the FBI.
"After the lady was shot at Home Depot, they showed on TV the weapon they thought they were using and said they were operating as a team," Holmes said. "That's why I called the FBI."
While Holmes said he made that call on Oct. 15 last year, authorities did not focus their investigation on Muhammad and Malvo until a week later, when fingerprints found on a weapons catalog at an Alabama crime scene directed them to Malvo. The pair was not arrested until Oct. 24. Two people would be shot after Holmes called the FBI.
Jurors were taken yesterday to see the Chevrolet Caprice in which Muhammad and Malvo were arrested. Several jurors had requested to see the car, which has a notch cut above its rear license plate.
Prosecutors allege that Muhammad and Malvo shot a high-powered rifle through that hole in some of the 13 sniper shootings last October.
The car was transported from the nearby city of Chesapeake to the Virginia Beach jail yesterday morning. Jurors walked to the jail from the courtroom, passing a row of inmate cells to get to a sally port where the Caprice was sitting under a tarp. They gathered around the front end of the car, while Muhammad stood about 25 feet away.
The 12 jurors and three alternates walked around the car counterclockwise, pausing as they passed the trunk, according to a pool reporter who accompanied the group. A male juror bent down to peer at the notch in the trunk. Another put his head into the trunk.
Jurors showed particular interest in the operation of the back seat of the Caprice, which was hinged at the top and could be pulled up from its base to gain access to the trunk. Three women bent into the back seat and craned to see through the hole. A woman stuck her arm all the way through the opening.
Defense lawyers had objected to showing jurors the car, partly because they said it was in a different condition from when the shootings occurred and partly because on Thursday prosecutors brought a full-size replica of the trunk into the courtroom. But the judge agreed with prosecutors, who said jurors deserved a closer look.
"I think it's appropriate for the jury to see it," Millette said. "I think the model certainly helps to illustrate the commonwealth's evidence, but I think a more complete illustration is probably appropriate."
Prosecutors said they expect to rest their case against Muhammad on Monday. He is charged with two counts of capital murder in the killing of civil engineer Dean H. Meyers at a Manassas, Va., gas station. One count is under the multiple killings law. The other is for committing a murder while in the commission of an act of terrorism.
Prosecutors say the fear caused by the shootings and the demand for $10 million constitutes a terrorist act.
Archer, the director of the homeless mission, said he first met Muhammad in August 2001 when he showed up with his children. They were taken from him two weeks later, and Muhammad left the mission the day after that. But he returned in October, and Malvo was with him. Archer said Muhammad had a "very strong influence" over the boy.
"Lee made an effort to always please Mr. Muhammad," Archer said.
Archer spoke warmly of Muhammad, saying he considered him a friend and admired him at one time. He said Muhammad's children were "extremely well-cared for." Archer even wrote Muhammad a letter of recommendation to help him in his custody battle with his former wife. But the letter was never mailed.
"The time came that I started to have some questions about John in my mind," Archer said. In October 2001 he called the FBI because he found it strange that Muhammad was flying around the country so much while living in a homeless shelter, especially so soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
Archer said that in his 31 years as director of the mission, Muhammad was the only resident who ever had a travel agent.