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Bizarre end to sniper defense

The murder trial of John Allen Muhammad wound down strangely yesterday as a prosecutor described the alleged sniper as a "pathetic coward" and Muhammad gave a rambling 3 1/2 -hour closing argument in which he quoted the Bible, alleged a government conspiracy and said he was framed.

Assistant State's Attorney Vivek Chopra told a rapt jury in closing arguments yesterday that Muhammad played God by randomly killing six innocent people in Montgomery County during the October 2002 sniper rampage in the Washington area. The notes allegedly left by Muhammad and his accomplice at shooting scenes read "Call me God."

Chopra asked jurors to "scrub away that veneer that covers this man and see him for what he is ... a heartless, soulless, manipulating murderer."

Muhammad, representing himself in the trial, maintained he is innocent, despite his conviction in Virginia of one sniper murder and the damning testimony of his alleged accomplice, 21-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo.

Summoning the bluster of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, a wide-eyed Muhammad stridently asserted that prosecutors had lied to the jury, paid off witnesses and colluded with police to manipulate evidence.

"My case is something very simple," Muhammad said, speaking from behind the defense table for security reasons. "That is that they lied. ... I'll tell you anything but a lie."

Yet the thread of Muhammad's convoluted argument was far from simple to follow. During his remarks, he referred to the Bible, the Quran, Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Groucho Marx, a dictionary, a law book, his children and his sixth-grade teacher.

"Keep the word 'logic' in your mind. Keep the word 'common sense' in your mind," Muhammad instructed the jurors numerous times.

Muhammad went through many of the 13 shootings, claiming that what witnesses said was impossible, implausible or lies.

After Muhammad had talked for about two hours, the courtroom once full of spectators was two-thirds empty, and jurors shifted in their seats. Montgomery County Circuit Judge James L. Ryan, at a prosecutor's request, asked Muhammad how much longer he planned to speak. Muhammad said, "Three or four more hours." Ryan later cut him off.

"I apologize," he told the jurors. "There is a lot more that I could show you, but I haven't got the time."

Muhammad, 45, who has been sentenced to death in Virginia for a sniper killing, is being tried on six counts of first-degree murder in Montgomery County, arising from the 2002 shootings.

He has been representing himself since firing his public defenders, who alleged that he was delusional and too mentally ill to stand trial. Ryan found that Muhammad was competent to represent himself.

While Muhammad initially impressed observers with his smooth demeanor and ease with courtroom terminology, he grew increasingly agitated as prosecutors presented forensic evidence linking him to the shootings, and as most of his witnesses failed to materialize.

This week, Malvo testified against Muhammad, calling Muhammad a "coward" and saying Muhammad turned him - a teenager at the time of the shootings - into a "monster." Malvo said Muhammad was the trigger man in 10 of the 13 Washington-area shootings. Malvo is serving life sentences in Virginia for the sniper shootings and plans to plead guilty to the six Montgomery County killings.

Muhammad suggested yesterday that Malvo - whom he again referred to as his "son" - had recently lost his mind. Referring to Malvo's interactions with Fairfax, Va., police detectives soon after the pair's arrest Oct. 24, 2002, Muhammad said, "I think at that particular time, Lee was still in his right mind."

Malvo testified that it took nearly a year in jail for him to shake free from Muhammad's brainwashing.

Muhammad alleged that police "thoroughly indoctrinated" Malvo, but he added, "I love my son."

Muhammad is charged in the October 2002 killings of James D. Martin, 55; James L. "Sonny" Buchanan, 39; Premkumar A. Walekar, 54; Maria Sarah Ramos, 34; Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25; and Conrad E. Johnson, 35.

In the state's closing argument, Chopra projected photos of the victims' bodies laid on the coroner's table or splayed on the blood-soaked pavement where they fell. He enumerated the evidence presented by DNA, fingerprint and ballistics experts and summarized the testimony of 17 eyewitnesses who placed Muhammad or his dark blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice near the scene of several murders about the time they occurred.

He said that Muhammad's car - rigged with a gun port and stocked with a .223 Bushmaster rifle, the match to a glove found at a murder scene, a computer with maps of the slayings' locations and drafts of threatening messages - proved that the murders were deliberate and premeditated. He called the car "a perfect sniper's lair for a coward."

Malvo's testimony was the last piece of evidence that Chopra discussed. He made clear that Muhammad was the mastermind behind the killings.

"This man had two weapons in his killing spree - he had the gun and he had Lee Boyd Malvo, and he was an expert at manipulating them both," Chopra said, alleging that Muhammad ordered the younger man to shoot from outside the car while he fired from inside the trunk.

Chopra stressed that even without Malvo's testimony, the state had built an overwhelming case against Muhammad with more than 300 pieces of evidence and the testimony of more than 125 witnesses.

After speaking for nearly an hour, Muhammad began his attempt to debunk the evidence. He couldn't have shot people from the back of his Caprice, he said, because the state did not show evidence of hair grease or fingerprints inside the trunk. DNA from a dark brown hair found in a duffel bag at a murder scene couldn't have been his, he said, because he has black hair.

And why, he asked the jury, was no evidence of smoke residue in the car presented if the Bushmaster rifle found there had been shot from the trunk so many times?

Muhammad compared himself to Jesus and other martyred figures. He addressed the jurors as "people," and as the afternoon wore on, he shouted, leaned forward and waved his arms.

Winfree, in her closing rebuttal, said that Muhammad did not come east from Washington state, as he claimed, simply to find his children, who were living with their mother in Clinton.

"Do you think he was looking for his children when he ran two stop signs before he shot Pascal Charlot?" she said, referring to the Oct. 3, 2002, killing of the elderly man in Washington, D.C.

When Winfree told jurors that Muhammad "reacts badly to lack of control," Muhammad forcefully objected.

Trial observers were taken aback by Muhammad's closing.

"He is a person of control," said Mary Branch, 49, of Silver Spring. "He wants to manipulate people."

Emily Thoresen, 20, a mortgage company inspector, said Muhammad's remarks were shocking. She said she believed he was guilty before, but after witnessing the closing statement, "I felt it," she said.

"How could you be so heartless?" she asked.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com julie.scharper@baltsun.comSun reporter Rona Marech contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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