Malvo was legally insane, expert says

CHESAPEAKE, Va. -- Unable to distinguish between right and wrong, Lee Boyd Malvo met the standard for being legally insane when he participated in last year's deadly sniper rampage, a Maryland psychiatrist for his defense testified yesterday.

"From Day One, I thought he met the legal criteria for being legally insane in Virginia," Dr. Neil Blumberg told the jurors in the capital murder trial.

Blumberg said that Malvo had a mental disease that made him "unable to distinguish right from wrong and was unable to resist the impulse to commit the offense." Those are two of the tests for legal insanity as it is defined in Virginia.

The psychiatrist was the second to take the stand yesterday to tell jurors that the Jamaican-born teen-ager had lost his sense of what is right. Blumberg diagnosed the youth as suffering from an unspecified "dissociative disorder," depression and a "conduct disorder."

But he believes the dysfunction was because of brainwashing by his alleged accomplice, convicted killer John Allen Muhammad. A Virginia Beach jury recommended a death sentence for Muhammad.

Blumberg, who said he is being paid about $42,500 by the state of Maryland for his evaluation of Malvo, said the disorder and brainwashing allowed the teen-ager to snuff out his feelings and take part in shooting after shooting, all for Muhammad's "righteous cause."

Even as Blumberg spoke, Malvo furiously doodled on a pad, as he has for most of the trial, alternating between looking up at the subject of his sketches and hunching over the defense table to draw.

The manic sketching, Blumberg said, was an example of dissociation, of Malvo blocking out the unpleasantness of a trial that could lead to his execution.

"This is a technique whereby he doesn't even have to think about what is going on here," Blumberg said. "What's going on here is he is being tried for murder, and he faces the death penalty. And the way he deals with that is focusing on his drawings, keeping his mind elsewhere."

Blumberg's testimony, and the earlier testimony of Maine psychiatrist Dr. Diane Schetky, are crucial to Malvo's insanity defense. Schetky testified that Malvo was like "putty" in Muhammad's hands.

Malvo is pleading not guilty by reason of insanity to two capital murder charges in the Oct. 14, 2002, fatal shooting of FBI analyst Linda Franklin in the parking lot of a Home Depot in Fairfax County, Va., one of 10 fatal shootings in a three-week stretch.

The battle of the mental health experts will begin in earnest as early as today, once the defense rests and prosecutors begin a rebuttal with two experts. Jurors will have to decide between the two psychological interpretations -- one, from the defense, that asserts Malvo's mind unraveled, and the second, from the prosecution, that he is a scheming killer who was in control of his mental faculties.

"The human mind is capable of great evil. But it is also capable of coming apart," said Jose Anderson, a University of Baltimore law professor who formerly supervised appeals in the state public defenders capital division.

Legal experts say that odds are against the jury finding Malvo insane. But they say that 11 days of defense testimony depicting him as a poor Caribbean child, whose rough background left him vulnerable to becoming Muhammad's murderous disciple, may give jurors reasons to spare his life.

Blumberg said the brainwashing process robbed Malvo of his identity and replaced it with one merged into Muhammad's.

"He basically became a sponge for all of the rhetoric Muhammad was willing to give," Blumberg said. With violent video games and movies, and oratory, Muhammad got him to believe that only with violence could they free oppressed American blacks, gain custody of Muhammad's children, and get the government to pay them $10 million to stop the shootings, money they would use to start a utopian colony.

On cross-examination by Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., Blumberg said he did not specifically ask Malvo if he knew right from wrong in several of the shootings because that was too leading a question. He did say, however, that Malvo was conflicted about his first killing, that of Keenya Cook on Feb. 16 last year.

In that killing, just days shy of his 17th birthday, Malvo did what Muhammad ordered: kill at the home of Isa Nichols, a bookkeeper at Muhammad's defunct Tacoma, Wash., business who sided with his estranged wife in a bitter divorce and custody dispute, Blumberg said. Muhammad told Malvo that Nichols robbed him of $1 million, robbed other Muslims and played a key role in his child custody loss, he said.

"His plan was to kill one of her relatives every year to get back at her," Blumberg said. He said Malvo feared abandonment by Muhammad more than he was disturbed about his "mission."

Defense psychiatrists contend that Malvo falsely confessed to protect his "father." After starting to reconnect with his Jamaican past, they said, Malvo told them that he shot Cook, and that the only Washington-area sniper shooting he committed was the final one, the killing of Montgomery County bus driver Conrad Johnson on Oct. 22. He claimed that he was the spotter in the rest.

Schetky said Malvo grew "hyperfocused" during the shootings, evidenced by detailed planning and site-scouting he did before the crimes. She said Malvo placed a trail of little plastic flags as an escape route for Muhammad in woods behind the Ponderosa restaurant in Ashland, Va., where a man was shot in the parking lot.

Such behavior, the psychiatrist testified, is common to dissociative behavior.

But Horan said it was common to another behavior: "Can it also be seen as a premeditated, deliberate attempt to kill a number of people?" he asked.

Schetky allowed that it was possible.

Blumberg told the nine women and seven men hearing the case that Malvo honed his ability to block out unpleasantness as a child.