Retreat by Muhammad called a shrewd move

Sniper shootings coverage
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - As abruptly as it began, John Allen Muhammad's self-representation ended yesterday when a toothache prompted him to reinstate his team of defense lawyers, throwing into question how jurors might perceive the alleged sniper mastermind.

And even as legal observers gave his amateurish performance in the capital murder trial passing marks, some attorneys called Muhammad's retreat a shrewd strategic move.

"Muhammad said his motive was he thought the jury would get to know him better if he represented himself, so [his attorneys] may have gotten a windfall," said Frank W. Dunham Jr., chief federal public defender for the Eastern District of Virginia. "He got to show himself without being cross-examined, and they may have gotten a chance for the jury to see Muhammad as a human being, if he didn't do too much damage as his own attorney."

Muhammad spent about 11 hours over the past two days defending himself against charges that he orchestrated the sniper shootings that terrorized the Washington area over two months last fall. One immediate impact of Muhammad's reversal was the pace of the trial, which had been projected to last six to eight weeks before Muhammad began representing himself.

Prosecutors shuffled 18 witnesses and experts through the courtroom in the first two days. Of those who testified for the prosecution, Muhammad declined to question a third of them, made brief inquiries of others and missed numerous opportunities to object to the course of the prosecution.

Yesterday, with attorneys Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro back in charge of the defense, offering objections and requesting repeated sidebar conferences, the rush slowed considerably.

"If [Muhammad] was one of my students, I wouldn't give him a very good grade, but for a guy with no legal background, he'd get a B plus," said Ronald J. Allen, who teaches criminal law at Northwestern University. "He made mistakes, no question about that, but he also scored some points."

Standing as his own defender on Monday, a neatly attired Muhammad offered jurors an alternate view of the Persian Gulf war veteran widely described after his arrest as a homeless, vengeful loser. He rambled at times, but asked discerning questions at others.

Despite objections by Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert that Muhammad relied too much on Greenspun and Shapiro while acting in his own defense, Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. praised the defendant's rudimentary legal approach.

And some of Muhammad's exchanges with witnesses won points with attorneys and law professors around the country who have been monitoring the trial through a local newspaper's Web journal.

Professor Anne Coughlin of the University of Virginia School of Law, said Muhammad had seemed determined to "lawyer his case."

Some defendants "give you the sense that their main objective is to disrupt the trial. That didn't seem to be his goal," she said. "Even though he had the desire to represent himself and put his own voice and face on this case, he realized the job was extremely difficult."

John F. Decker, a DePaul University law school professor who wrote an assessment of pro se defense in 1995, said Muhammad's flip-flop confirmed his belief of the Sixth Amendment right as a "constitutional right to shoot yourself in the foot."

"I just think it's a bad concept all around," Decker said yesterday. Nevertheless, he described Muhammad's clumsy self-representation as "relatively astute."

Muhammad's brief fling at self-representation was a rarity in criminal trials. His reversal of the decision to fire his team of court-appointed attorneys puts the trial in an even more rarefied league.

The role of the defense is to force the prosecution to make its case, said attorney Charles L. Hobson of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif. Muhammad generally fell short of that goal, Hobson said, but he also scored minor successes, such as his questioning of Paul B. Hammer.

Hammer, a University of Maryland computer administrator, witnessed the shooting of Paul J. LaRuffa, owner of Margellina Restaurant in Clinton, Md., on Sept. 5, 2002. A self-described regular, Hammer acknowledged under Muhammad's cross-examination that he had been drinking at the restaurant's bar on the night of the shooting - and that he was no longer sure the figure he had seen was a black man.

"I had about three or four [drinks] over the course of about three hours," Hammer said. "I, I couldn't be sure. It was gloomy and it happened very quickly."