By Stephen Kiehl
October 22, 2003
The second day of testimony in the trial of John Allen Muhammad, suspected of killing 13 people in a cross-country rampage that climaxed in the Washington region, revealed more near-misses in which police allowed the sniper suspects to slip through their fingers during frenetic days last fall.
It was also another day of testimony guided along by Muhammad, who at the start of the trial fired his lawyers and took his defense into his own hands.
Although he has no formal legal training, Muhammad vigorously questioned witnesses and argued legal technicalities. But he also made an occasional blunder and at times appeared awkward during his cross-examinations of witnesses.
"It's a difficult situation," said Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. "Mr. Muhammad made this decision and we're going to live with it. Mr. Muhammad appears to be competently representing himself, he appears to be asking the appropriate questions and he appears to understand everything that's going on."
Chief among the evidence presented by the prosecution yesterday was the Baltimore map book, found in a restaurant lot where a blue Chevrolet Caprice was parked directly across from the gas station where Meyers was fatally shot Oct. 9, 2002.
The book contained one fingerprint that matched Muhammad and six that matched his co-defendant, Lee Boyd Malvo, according to an analysis by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
It would not be until almost two weeks later, when authorities linked a fingerprint found on a weapons magazine at a crime scene in Montgomery, Ala., to a print Malvo had given to immigration officials months before, that authorities realized who they were looking for.
The map book was found by Steven Bailey of the Prince William County police force, who in the confusion after the shooting was ordered to stand sentry at the exit of the Bob Evans restaurant across the street from the gas station. He asked those leaving the parking lot whether they saw or heard anything, and he took down their names and license plate numbers.
"People became irate, and my sergeant said if they didn't hear or see anything, we didn't need to write down their tag numbers," Bailey testified. So when Muhammad rolled up in a Caprice about 30 minutes after the shooting, the officer did not take down his information. But he did ask him several questions.
"I asked the defendant if he had heard or seen anything," Bailey said. "He stated he did not. He said he was coming home from vacation, came off [Interstate] 66 onto [Route] 234 and the police directed him into the parking lot. He was very polite and very courteous."
On cross-examination, Muhammad asked the two-year veteran officer if it made any sense that police would have directed him into the parking lot so soon after a man had been shot across the street.
"I didn't catch on," the officer said. "I wish I had."
Muhammad proved able during several sharp cross-examinations. When one man testified that he witnessed a shooting after leaving a restaurant, Muhammad asked him how much he had to drink that night.
But Muhammad's questioning also backfired on occasion. He asked the head of the collection management department at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library whether the map book found near the Manassas shooting had a device that would set off a security system if it was taken out of the library.
The woman, Lynn Stonesifer, carefully examined the map and said she was surprised to find that it had no such security device - perhaps giving jurors the impression it would have been easy to steal.
Stonesifer said the library got a call last Thursday from the FBI asking whether it was missing a map book. Library officials ran the map's bar code through their records. Stonesifer said the map had last been used at the Reisterstown Road branch on June 3, 2002, and was on the current inventory - meaning officials didn't know it was missing.
When Stonesifer examined the map in court yesterday, she said its bar code sticker included the name of the Pratt library and another sticker on it read "RST," short for the Reisterstown branch.
The map was among 50 pieces of evidence introduced by the prosecution yesterday. Muhammad is charged with two counts of capital murder in the death of Meyers, 53, a civil engineer from Gaithersburg who was shot at a Manassas Sunoco station. The trial was moved to Virginia Beach to find impartial jurors.
The jury heard gripping testimony yesterday from several witnesses, including the man who authorities believe was the snipers' first victim in Maryland.
Paul J. LaRuffa was closing his Italian restaurant in Clinton Sept. 5, 2002, when he was attacked as he got into his car.
"I shut the door and almost immediately I saw a figure to my left," LaRuffa said, weeping. "I saw a flash of light, my window broke, I heard shots, I was being shot. I leaned to my right, waiting for the shots to stop. It seemed like forever, but it was only several seconds."
After the shooting stopped, LaRuffa stumbled out of his car to find a friend running toward him with a cell phone. "I said, 'I've been shot. Dial 911. Hurry up. I'm having trouble breathing. I'm not dying on this parking lot in Clinton, Md.'"
Bleeding from his chest and back, he realized his assailant had stolen his laptop computer and briefcase containing the day's receipts that he had put on the back seat of his car. Authorities allege the $3,600 in the briefcase was used by Muhammad and Malvo to buy the Caprice and bankroll the killings.
LaRuffa's laptop computer was later found in Muhammad's Caprice, containing documents with Muhammad's name on them and mapping programs that LaRuffa said were not on the computer when he owned it.
He identified the laptop when it was presented to him in court yesterday, along with the green bank bags that had his restaurant's name on them.
About a month after that attack, the bank bags were found by a groundskeeper in the woods behind the Clinton law firm of Maryland state Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller. Found with the bags was a T-shirt that had hair on it consistent with Malvo's DNA, authorities said.
Muhammad began his cross-examination of LaRuffa by telling him, "I'm not asking you these questions to disrespect you, but I have to ask these questions because I know you understand how it feels when your life is on the line."
Prosecutors later complained to the judge that Muhammad was making inappropriate statements to the witnesses. "He said it to curry favor with the jury," said prosecutor James A. Willett.
Outside the courtroom, LaRuffa told reporters that he wasn't nervous about being questioned by the man charged in his shooting. But he said he found it strange and surreal.
"It probably was the weirdest thing that ever happened in my life," LaRuffa said. "It was a feeling you can't explain. Defendants aren't supposed to question you. Yet it happened."
Muhammad apologized for his statement to LaRuffa and the judge told him that he should stick to questions. The judge also questioned the exact circumstances of Muhammad's self-representation. The lawyers he fired yesterday continue to sit next to him, often whispering to him and apparently telling him when to make objections.
When prosecutors complained of the situation, Muhammad's standby counsel Peter D. Greenspun said the prosecutors were "going to have stiff necks because they're looking at what's going on at this table."
Millette shot back: "I'm looking straight ahead."
Later he said, "What's happening here is you're acting as co-counsel with the three [defense lawyers] and you're doing the talking." He ordered Muhammad's standby counsel to sit farther away from him at the defense table.
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