VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - As the trial for his life got under way yesterday, John Allen Muhammad shocked the court by firing his lawyers and delivering an elliptical opening statement in which he claimed direct knowledge of the sniper shootings only to, moments later, deny any involvement.
"We know something happened," Muhammad told the jury after the prosecution's opening statement methodically linked him to 16 shootings over two months last fall. He then belittled the prosecution case as an unproven theory, saying emphatically, "They wasn't there. I was. I know what happened."
At that, he briefly broke down. His voice cracked and he appeared to heave and sob before regaining composure.
Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. questioned Muhammad, 42, at length about his sudden request to represent himself and reluctantly allowed him to do so. The judge designated Muhammad's attorneys to stay on as standby counsel to occasionally advise Muhammad, who has not completed any formal education beyond high school.
"Let the record reflect that the court has granted a motion by Mr. Muhammad that he represent himself," Millette said after conferring with lawyers and the defendant at the bench. "After lengthy interrogation of all parties, the court has granted the motion."
Muhammad is on trial in the killing of Dean H. Meyers, a 53-year-old Vietnam veteran who was gunned down outside a Northern Virginia gas station last October. In a rambling and philosophical opening statement, Muhammad gave little clue as to why he fired his lawyers, two veteran defense attorneys considered among the best in Virginia and who have been working on his case for a year.
But Muhammad did say he was tired of the negative things being said about him in the media and he wanted to present an alternate view.
Perhaps aware of a widely held assumption that his lawyers would essentially concede their client's guilt and instead focus on saving his life, Muhammad said he did not want the jury to see their choice as "dirty glass No. 1 or dirty glass No. 2."
"My response is to set a clean glass of me alongside these dirty glasses," Muhammad told the jury. "The only reason you've been drinking out of a dirty glass is because you had a choice between dirty glass No. 1 and dirty glass No. 2."
Speaking from notes scribbled on a yellow legal pad, Muhammad discussed the nature of truth and said it comes in three kinds - "truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." He said Jesus taught "Ye should know the truth" but these other forms of truth have emerged as people have grown deceitful and evil.
"Listen to [the evidence] carefully," he told the jury. "It will show I had nothing at all to do with these crimes. They know that. Pay attention. Please pay attention because right now my life and my son's life is on the line."
Muhammad repeatedly referred to 18-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo, his alleged co-conspirator, as his son. The two did not meet, however, until Malvo was 15 years old and living on the Caribbean island of Antigua with his mother.
Prosecutors said they did not know of Muhammad's decision to represent himself until this morning. They said it will be challenging and frustrating to argue against someone who has no legal training, but they will not soften their approach.
"This will be a hard-fought battle," said prosecutor James A. Willett in his 90-minute opening statement. "We will make him play by the rules. We represent hundreds of thousands of people, so we are not going to lay down just because he's representing himself."
Muhammad's own lawyers looked defeated and ashen after they had been removed as counsel. At one break yesterday, defense lawyer Jonathan Shapiro stood with his back against a wall in the courtroom, his eyes downcast and his hands in his pockets. Asked to comment later, he said only, "Nothing."
One of Malvo's defense lawyers, however, said Muhammad's decision amounted to a death wish.
"It's absolute foolishness, absolute foolishness," said Michael S. Arif. "These are big stakes, man. This is not traffic court."
The day got even stranger in the afternoon when Malvo appeared in court to be identified by a witness. It was the second courtroom meeting for the two suspects in less than a month, after they had not seen each other all year.
Malvo entered the courtroom by a side door and was escorted by two guards to the front of the courtroom. A woman who works at a bank near where Meyers was shot in Manassas, Va., pointed out Malvo as the person she saw getting into a Chevrolet Caprice in the bank parking lot an hour before the shooting.
"He had more hair, but yes," said Linda Thompson, when asked whether Malvo was the person she saw. She said that as Malvo was getting into the car, Muhammad was walking toward her from the Bob Evans restaurant nearby. She said Muhammad nodded at her and said, "Good evening, ma'am."
When the judge asked Muhammad if he had any questions while Malvo was present, Malvo briefly looked at the man accused of indoctrinating him over many months and then turned away. Muhammad said, "I have a question, but not while he's present."
Malvo was then taken out of the courtroom, his entire appearance lasting less than a minute. Muhammad later asked the woman if she took note of him because he was black. The woman said no, that she noticed him because his car had New Jersey tags and she was worried about a potential robbery.
Willett, the prosecutor, began his opening statement by pulling a black rifle out of a duffel bag and assembling it in front of the jury.
He then swung down its bipod and placed it on the prosecution table, pointing it into the audience, and asked the jury to think back to last Oct. 24 - "a day that would see the capture of the snipers, a day that would be their last at large, a day that would finally see an end to the killings."
He said the FBI Elite Hostage Rescue team that descended on the car didn't know whether the suspects were in the vehicle or watching from the woods nearby.
"They know they're clever and plant things well," Willett said. "They know they'll kill without provocation."
The FBI team rushed the car, smashed out the windows and pulled Muhammad and Malvo out and onto the ground. "It's over just that fast," Willett said, later noting that the car would provide a trove of evidence - a weapon linked to the shootings, maps, earplugs, a laptop computer containing information on the shootings and a digital voice recorder.
While Willett did not say who the prosecution believes fired the fatal shots in the "campaign of terror," he indicated that Malvo pulled the trigger while Muhammad acted as the "spotter" in the team - the one who provides security, finds the way in and way out, chooses the targets and gives the order to fire.
"The spotter has to trigger the shoot - tell the shooter where the target is and when it's in position," Willett said. It is essential for the prosecution to prove that Muhammad was a "direct participant" in the shootings to secure the death penalty.
Willett revealed several new pieces of information about the Chevrolet Caprice in which Muhammad and Malvo were captured. He said a gun port cut above the license plate was beveled in a classic military fashion so that it was hard to see in but easy to see out.
Willett also said the inside of the trunk lid was painted a dark color so that when the trunk opened slightly for the muzzle of the gun to point out, no one would notice the white underside of the trunk lid.
In previewing some of the evidence to be introduced at trial, Willett said forensic scientists will connect the Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle found in Muhammad's car with 10 killings and two shootings that terrorized the Washington area last fall.
The prosecutor also noted with irony a T-shirt found with several empty bank bags that he said Muhammad and Malvo stole from a Maryland man to finance their killings. The T-shirt read, "I only have the ability to be nice to one person today. Today's not your day." Hair fibers on the shirt contained DNA consistent with Malvo's, he said.
Despite his lack of legal expertise, Muhammad showed occasional skill arguing his case. On cross-examination of a sniper expert from the British army who had testified that items found in Muhammad's car are useful to snipers - maps, earplugs and bungee cords - Muhammad got the expert to admit that such items could be found in malls and used for such activities as navigation.
"All this stuff - anybody can buy it on the civilian market and if you've never been in an area before, all this stuff would be something you'd use?" Muhammad asked. The witness, Mark Spicer, agreed.
But then lead prosecutor Paul B. Ebert stood, walked over to the evidence table and held in the air the rifle found in Muhammad's car.
Ebert asked Spicer, "You ever seen anyone in a mall carrying this?"
The reply: "No, sir."