Sniper's attorneys quit murder trial

Sniper shootings coverage
Convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad will not have public defenders standing by to help him as he represents himself in his Montgomery County murder trial.

The Office of the Public Defender in Montgomery County yesterday bowed out of the case, a day after Muhammad was permitted to act as his own lawyer in a trial in which he is accused of the random killings of six people in 2002.

"We will not be acting as standby counsel. It was a decision by our administration," said Paul B. DeWolfe, the head public defender for Montgomery County.

Unless Judge James L. Ryan prevails upon private lawyers, Muhammad, 45, will have no attorneys to help him - beginning with a hearing today - through a three-week trial scheduled to begin May 1 in which he could be sentenced to life without parole. Muhammad is on death row in Virginia for one of the Washington-area sniper killings in 2002.

Today's hearing before Ryan is expected to include such practicalities as issuing defense subpoenas and dealing with more than 30,000 pages of material that Montgomery County prosecutors turned over to his lawyers. De Wolfe said Muhammad "has what we have," though on Wednesday Muhammad griped about difficulties accessing the material, which is in DVD format.

Unlike in the hearing Wednesday in which Ryan found Muhammad was competent and could represent himself, Muhammad will not be flanked by DeWolfe and Deputy Public Defender Brian D. Shefferman, the lawyers who maintained that he was mentally ill.

Ryan warned Muhammad that it was a "bad idea" for him to fire his lawyers, and said he would like standby attorneys. Muhammad agreed but balked at DeWolfe and Shefferman.

But the Office of the Public Defender, which represents poor people charged with crimes, does not allow clients to choose from its attorneys or fashion a hybrid of self-representation and public defenders. It cannot be forced by a judge into a standby role.

Nancy S. Forster, Maryland's chief public defender, said the office's policy is not to provide standby counsel for those who fire public defenders for no valid reason or want to represent themselves.

"If there is no merit to them discharging us, then we are out," she said. "You can't have us a little bit."

Acting on a standby basis, she said, is not consistent with Muhammad's right to represent himself. Nevertheless, she said, it was "a shame" that Muhammad decided to forego the attorneys.

Muhammad has been convicted of capital murder for a fatal shooting in Virginia's Prince William County that prosecutors say was one of the sniper shootings that terrorized the region in the fall of 2002 and left 10 people dead. Virginia lawyers asked the Supreme Court to hear an appeal.

"I feel strongly that Mr. Muhammad is not competent to stand trial, and I feel strongly that he should have counsel," DeWolfe said yesterday.

In a letter to the judge last week, Muhammad wrote that he wanted to fire his lawyers. On Monday, they had Muhammad examined by Yale University psychiatrist Dr. Dorothy O. Lewis. She found him delusional, paranoid and suffering from a form of schizophrenia.

On Wednesday, DeWolfe sought a full evidentiary hearing on Muhammad's mental health, and he asked the court to consider ordering an evaluation. But Assistant State's Attorney Vivek Chopra suggested that Ryan could question Muhammad in court and decide, which Ryan did.

In his Virginia trial in 2003, Muhammad briefly fired his court-appointed legal team, which was relegated to standby status. He reinstated the lawyers after a toothache sidelined him, but not before he told jurors that he was present at the fatal shooting and knew what happened, and wept. Nevertheless, that gave him a window to show jurors the defendant as a person, different from the meandering loser prosecutors were portraying.

"You can't let the guy go without standby counsel. It would be a ripe area for appeal. You want to try this case twice?" Michael S. Arif, a Springfield, Va., lawyer, said yesterday. He represented Lee Boyd Malvo, 21, the junior member of the sniper team, who is serving life in prison for his role in the Virginia sniper shootings. He is scheduled for trial in the Montgomery County cases in the fall.

Montgomery County prosecutors declined to comment.

Stand-by lawyers can help prepare the defense case for trial, issue subpoenas, offer legal advice and the like. They cannot butt in while the jury is watching.

"There probably would be nothing wrong with the judge appointing standby counsel. The judge could inquire if someone wants to," said University of Baltimore law professor Byron L. Warnken.

But there is a practical limit to asking a private attorney to drop his practice for two months or more, probably without pay.

"Why would you or I want to give up a month or more for somebody who doesn't want us there anyway?" Warnken said.