City lawyers are standby counsel for Muhammad

Sniper shootings coverage
Three Baltimore lawyers were named yesterday to act as standby counsel for convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad, whose trial on six counts of first-degree murder in Montgomery County is scheduled to start Monday.

J. Wyndal Gordon, Russell Neverdon Sr., and A. Jai Bonner appeared before Montgomery County Circuit Judge James L. Ryan during a pretrial hearing for Muhammad, who is representing himself after dismissing his public defenders several weeks ago.

Muhammad, the elder member of the pair accused of terrorizing the Washington suburbs in October 2002, agreed to the free legal help from lawyers who said their private practices include a significant amount of criminal defense work and who answered a statewide plea from the judge for shadow counsel for Muhammad. They can offer legal advice when Muhammad asks them - but cannot butt in - during the trial that is expected to last at least through May.

"We see this as an issue that is much bigger than Mr. Muhammad," Gordon said outside the courtroom. He noted that Muhammad has the right to legal advice despite being infamous and on death row in Virginia for another of the sniper shootings. The team hopes to help protect Muhammad's rights, ensure a fair trial and preserve appellate issues, he said.

Gordon said using three lawyers will ensure that one can always be in court and to allow each time to sift through the more than 30,000 pages of documents provided by prosecutors.

"When you get a case that is this emotionally charged, you get a tendency for the process to be overlooked. But it is still important to make sure the process works," Bonner said.

The three were to meet with Muhammad yesterday.

They could serve as trial counsel if the judge decides that Muhammad is no longer capable of representing himself, harking to the arguments of his public defenders who contended he is mentally ill, or if Muhammad decides to drop the role.

But after watching Muhammad, 45, argue in court for more than an hour yesterday, the lawyers said they were impressed by his efforts to reach the core ideas of arguments, albeit without the legalese.

"He is definitely not intimidated by the system," Gordon said.

Baltimore criminal defense lawyer Warren Brown described the three as "conscientious attorneys," but he said they have a difficult task: "I wish them well because this guy clearly is demanding, and he is going to continue to be demanding."

Neverdon previously represented Antonio Murray, one of two Baltimore police officers convicted this month in federal court of corruption charges. He was found guilty on all but two of the charges. Bonner successfully defended Solothal "Itchy Man" Thomas on a 1998 murder charge. Gordon represented Christopher Berry, one of three Ellicott City high school students who briefly faced rape charges two years ago, until the accuser recanted and prosecutors dropped charges.

Muhammad is charged in the October 2002 shooting rampage that killed 10 people in the Washington area.

He could be sentenced to life without parole if convicted in Montgomery County. His accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, is serving a life prison term in Virginia for one of the sniper shootings and is scheduled for a fall trial in Montgomery County.

Remaining as his own attorney could put Muhammad face to face with Malvo, whom he was accused of brainwashing, if Malvo testifies against Muhammad. Prosecutors expect to call up to 135 witnesses.

But yesterday's hearing also showed the difficulties of having Muhammad, convicted of capital murder in Virginia in 2003, represent himself. He remained guarded about his strategy and would not tell Judge Ryan in front of prosecutors why he wanted to subpoena certain witnesses because, he said, he did not want to aid prosecutors.

His handwritten list of 178 defense witnesses, plus about 354 names of people who were significant in the investigation given to him by prosecutors, comprised the more than 500 people he wants subpoenaed.

Muhammad's list includes a woman who claimed to have seen him in New Jersey more than a week after he was arrested, the Virginia prosecutor who obtained the death sentence against him, and a woman who lived adjacent to an apartment that yielded a fruitless search by police.

"They are fishing; they are trying to figure out why Muhammad wants these witnesses," Muhammad said of prosecutors' challenges. His arguments included citing the Constitution and quoting former first lady Nancy Reagan's "just say no" to drugs motto.

Muhammad is due in court Friday for what is expected to be his final pretrial hearing.