Jurors saw the dark blue Chevrolet Caprice yesterday in which John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested - a 1990 sedan that prosecutors say Muhammad turned into a sniper's lair in the fall of 2002.
The brief field trip was preceded by a warning from the judge presiding over Muhammad's six-count murder trial in Montgomery County. He told the jurors not to speak while they were looking at the car, as no voice recordings are made outside the courtroom.
For more than a week, jurors had been hearing about the vehicle - once a white police car in New Jersey but notorious since Muhammad and Malvo were arrested in it Oct. 24, 2002, at an Interstate 70 rest stop near Frederick and charged with being the snipers terrorizing the Washington region. They had seen photos of the car, its windows tinted too dark to see in, a gunport cut in the trunk, the trunk and back modified to hide a person and a gun.
"May we touch parts of the vehicle?" one juror called out from the jury box as the group prepared to see the Caprice.
"I don't see why not. I'm not trying to be funny, but don't get in it," Judge James L. Ryan replied.
Members of the media were not permitted to accompany the jury to see the car, although several media representatives were allowed to view it later.
The jury's viewing of the car lasted less than 15 minutes. Virginia prosecutors considered the car - in which a rifle, a stolen laptop computer marked with potential shooting sites and other items forensics experts tied to the pair - as powerful evidence.
Muhammad, 45, is on death row in Virginia for another sniper slaying. Malvo, 21, is serving life sentences without parole in Virginia, though he has been cooperating with authorities in the Montgomery County prosecution of Muhammad. Thirteen people were shot, 10 fatally, in the sniper rampage in the Washington area.
Yesterday, jurors heard FBI agents testify about the predawn arrest that took place after a refrigeration repairman called 911 to say the car he heard on the radio that police were looking for was parked near him at the rest stop. Agents testified that they broke out car windows and pulled out the sleeping pair.
Among the items seen by the jury were the .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle that experts tied to the shootings as well as to Malvo and Muhammad in their Virginia trials; a Global Positioning System believed to have been used by the pair; and walkie-talkies that Malvo told police in Virginia the pair used to communicate as lookout and shooter.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who is vying for the Democratic nomination for governor, watched the trial for more than an hour yesterday morning. Later, he joined Vickie Snider, sister of sniper victim James "Sonny" Buchanan, and other handgun control advocates to call for a statewide ban on assault rifles.
Duncan called Muhammad "very evil, very manipulative and very calculating," and said that the lengthy and expensive Montgomery trial is necessary to ensure that Muhammad is not freed if his Virginia conviction is overturned.
Muhammad is acting as his own lawyer, having fired his public defenders a month before the trial started, after they suggested he was delusional and otherwise mentally ill. He is receiving limited help from three standby lawyers from Baltimore. Yesterday morning, with none of them present for a short time, Muhammad seemed unprepared to question an FBI agent.
Muhammad tried to question a federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent about other sniper sprees in Ohio and West Virginia, but the judge blocked him.
Muhammad was apparently attempting to plant the idea with jurors that he was framed and that the real killer went on to other killings. But when questioned by Assistant State's Attorney Vivek Chopra, the agent said that those slayings were not tied to the rifle found in Muhammad's car.
At the park in Aspen Hill near where bus driver Conrad E. Johnson was killed in the doorway of his bus by a sniper's bullet on Oct. 22, 2002, more than 60 volunteers chopped down dead trees and underbrush yesterday in a day of service dedicated to the slain driver. As several of Johnson's former co-workers watched, volunteers planted a tree in his memory.
Said bus driver Helen Washington, who worked with Johnson for 15 years: "When we come past here and do our routes, we'll look over and see it and remember a member of our family."