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Sniper suspect reinstates his defense team

Justice SystemTrials and ArbitrationDeathAssaultDefense

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Citing a change of heart and an abscessed tooth that swelled his right cheek to the size of a lemon, sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad rehired his lawyers yesterday - and vowed not to fire them again.

"I want them to continue," Muhammad told Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. during a morning conference at the bench yesterday. He also said that he could barely speak because of the pain in his mouth and that he believes he will be best served by the lawyers who have defended him for almost a year.

The judge said to him, "One of the reasons you said you wanted to represent yourself was because you said you could speak for yourself better than anybody. You've had that chance in opening statement. Now maybe it's time for professionals to continue with the case."

Defense lawyers said they were pleased to regain control after being fired Monday. They made gains yesterday that would have likely eluded their client, who has a 12th-grade education and sometimes appeared adrift when representing himself earlier this week.

"You don't know how emotional it is for a lawyer, with death on the table, to be sidelined," said attorney Jonathan Shapiro outside the courthouse. "All of us agreed justice was not being served to have us sit there, silent. We're greatly relieved Mr. Muhammad decided to change course."

Muhammad is charged with two counts of capital murder in the death of Dean H. Meyers, a civil engineer shot at a gas station near Manassas last October. It was one of 13 shootings in the Washington region that month that spread fear through the community.

In his sidebar conference with the judge yesterday, Muhammad said he had been hit in the mouth when he was first arrested and a filling had been knocked loose. A temporary filling had been put in, but it apparently did not take, he said.

Complicating the matter, Muhammad said he refuses to take pain medication because it would make him drowsy in the courtroom. The judge said he would try to arrange for Muhammad to see a dentist last night, and he offered to stop the trial.

"I don't want to the trial to stop," Muhammad said.

Prosecutors yesterday presented evidence from several earlier shootings that have been linked to Muhammad and his co-defendant, 18-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo. Jurors heard gripping testimony from a Maryland man who was shot while locking up his liquor store in Prince George's County on Sept. 15, 2002.

Muhammad Rashid said he had just turned his key to lock the store's front door when he heard two bullets scream by his head. Then, he said, he sensed a presence to his left. He turned and saw a young black man approaching him.

"I tried to wave to him and I saw his face," Rashid said. "I can see something in his hand - a pistol or revolver. I said, 'Hey! Ho!' I saw sparks from him and I felt something and then I was on the ground."

Rashid said he played dead by closing his eyes and mouth and breathing through his nose while his assailant picked through his pockets. When he felt it was safe, he called 911 from his cell phone. Prosecutors played that harrowing six-minute call in the courtroom, in which Rashid could be heard screaming and crying, "Please, oh my God, oh my God!"

Rashid was asked if he could identify the man who attacked him. He said he could. Prosecutors then called Malvo into the courtroom, where he stood flanked by two sheriff's deputies while Rashid looked him over for a moment.

"His face, his color, his physical stature is very, very similar to the guy who struck me," Rashid finally said. "I can say that he is the guy."

'He was in a frenzy'

Malvo was also identified in court yesterday by an Alabama man who was at the scene of another liquor store shooting, this one in Montgomery, Ala., on Sept. 21, 2002. The man said he was around the corner from the ABC liquor store when he heard gunshots and, seconds later, saw police officers pursuing a suspect behind the store.

"He was getting a good lead on [the officer] and I decided I would try to cut him off," said James Gray, a 64-year-old newspaper executive. "As I approached him, he went into an alley, and that's when I came face-to-face with him."

Gray said he yelled at the person to stop, and the person looked him in the eye before running away.

"What I saw most was his eyes," Gray said. "He was staring right at me and his eyes were big and round and he looked wild - like he was in a frenzy. When I saw his eyes, he scared me."

Malvo was then brought into the courtroom again. Gray asked Malvo to turn to his left side, and Gray began crying. "That's him," he said, burying his face in his hands. "Oh God, oh Lord."

Gray's chase came after someone had shot two clerks at the ABC liquor store. One, Claudine Parker, died from her wounds. The other, Kellie Adams, was shot under her ear and had her jaw shattered, but she survived and was able to testify yesterday that she felt as though she had been struck by lightning.

"I was on the ground within three or four seconds," Adams testified in a whisper through a tracheotomy tube. "I felt this huge knot in the back of my head, and I moved my head to the left and that's when I saw all of this blood."

She also saw the legs of her assailant as he ran by her. She said they were the legs of a black man, and she gave a description that matched Gray's.

Also yesterday, prosecutors explained to the jury how Muhammad came into possession of the blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice that allegedly became a key tool in the sniper spree. The owner of Sure Shot Auto Sales in Trenton, N.J., said he sold the car to Muhammad on Sept. 9, 2002.

The man, Chris Okupski, gave conflicting accounts of the sale. First he testified that Muhammad was actually lying down in the trunk - a chilling suggestion given that authorities believe many of the sniper shots were fired by a person lying in a prone position in the trunk of that vehicle.

But under cross-examination, Okupski said he only saw Muhammad leaning into the trunk of the car, with his feet firmly planted on the ground. He also testified that when he sold the car to Muhammad, it did not have the tinted windows or gunport cut into trunk that authorities found when they seized it last fall.

Back on the job

Muhammad's attorneys, back on the job, made numerous objections yesterday and won several of them. They persuaded the judge to bar the testimony of a ballistics expert and crime scene reconstruction expert who were expected to help bolster the case that Muhammad's Caprice was at the liquor store shooting scene in Brandywine.

Defense lawyer Peter D. Greenspun said that for the last several days Muhammad had been reconsidering his decision to represent himself, and he indicated that early yesterday Muhammad received an extra nudge from the judge.

"He decided to allow us to begin again our representation of him," Greenspun said outside the courthouse. "We're relieved and pleased he took that step and glad we have the opportunity to be in this."

But even as Muhammad's trial got back on track yesterday, it appeared that the Malvo trial may be postponed. That trial is scheduled to start Nov. 10. But prosecutors yesterday asked the judge in the case for a delay so they can prepare for Malvo's recently claimed insanity defense.

A hearing on that request is scheduled for this afternoon.

Sun staff writer Andrea Siegel contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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