Muhammad ruled competent

Sniper shootings coverage
Despite claims from his defense lawyers that he is mentally ill, convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad is competent to stand trial and will be allowed to act as his own lawyer at his Montgomery County murder trial that begins May 1, a county judge ruled yesterday.

Muhammad, 45, who is on death row in Virginia for another sniper killing and is facing trial in Montgomery County in six slayings during the fall 2002 sniper rampage that terrorized the Washington area, sought yesterday to fire his lawyers.

They argued that Muhammad should be barred from representing himself because they said he is paranoid and suffers from a form of schizophrenia, a contention he vehemently denied during a two-hour court hearing yesterday.

"Your Honor, can I sit over there with them?" Muhammad said, gesturing toward a team of Montgomery County prosecutors who agreed with him that he is competent, a quip that elicited giggles from elsewhere in the courtroom.

His defense team contended that Muhammad's remarks during the hearing, which included complaints about his lawyers' strategy and their failure to cooperate with him, showed his paranoia.

Circuit Judge James L. Ryan took the approach suggested by Assistant State's Attorney Vivek Chopra, who said the judge could make a determination of competency by querying Muhammad and observing his demeanor.

After lengthy questioning, Ryan told Muhammad he could represent himself. But Ryan repeatedly advised Muhammad that it was a bad idea. The judge warned that Muhammad lacks the legal experience and training that are valuable in a complex trial in which he could be sentenced to multiple life prison terms without parole.

Muhammad and Caribbean native Lee Boyd Malvo, 21, have been convicted of murder in Virginia in the random sniper shootings, which claimed the lives of 10 people in the Washington area.

Malvo was sentenced to life in prison in Virginia. He will be tried in Montgomery County in the fall. Two other states are seeking to try the pair.

Much of the procedural detail of how to run a trial with Muhammad acting as his own lawyer, as well as whether the defense team will serve as stand-by counsel, as the judge wants, will be part of a court hearing scheduled for tomorrow.

Montgomery County Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe and Deputy Public Defender Brian D. Shefferman lashed out at Ryan after the court hearing. They said they were disappointed that the judge refused their request to hold a separate competency hearing.

DeWolfe called it "extraordinary" that Ryan did not agree to hear evidence and expert testimony detailing what they said were Muhammad's psychiatric and neurological dysfunctions. DeWolfe said Muhammad's mental illness and insistence on acting as his own lawyer were intertwined.

"Mr. Muhammad is going to represent himself, and I think he is mentally ill. He has little or no insight into his mental illness," DeWolfe said. Later, he added, "I think he'll get through trial. Poorly."

Rail-thin, Muhammad stood for the entire court hearing, often waving his arms and gesturing with his hands to make his points. He repeatedly announced, "I am not crazy," and said it would be "insane" for him to allow defense lawyers to portray him that way. He dismissed an assessment by Dr. Dorothy O. Lewis of Yale University, who wrote Monday that Muhammad's judgment is so compromised by mental dysfunction that he cannot appreciate the strength of the evidence tying him to the crimes, and instead insists that he has been framed.

The scenario was reminiscent of that in a courtroom in Virginia Beach, Va., in October 2003. On trial in a Prince William County sniper killing, Muhammad briefly fired his lawyers, only to recall them within two days when a toothache troubled him. By then, however, he had told jurors that he was present at the fatal shooting and knew what happened but had no direct role. Muhammad was later convicted and sentenced to death.

If Muhammad acts as his own lawyer next month, he could end up questioning his ex-wife, who Virginia prosecutors said he sought to kill. Prosecutors said she was the subject of his wrath because she had won custody of their children in a bitter dispute.

The single trial in the deaths in Montgomery County, which bore the brunt of the terror, is scheduled to last most of May.