An unlikely bond: one a lawyer, the other a killer

Baltimore Sun

Minutes before convicted Washington-area sniper John Allen Muhammad was executed Tuesday night in Virginia, he said goodbye to a Baltimore lawyer who had become a trusted confidant.

"I love you, brother," Muhammad said, according to the attorney, J. Wyndal Gordon, and Gordon told the condemned man he loved him back.

Then Gordon shook Muhammad's hand through the bars and clutched his elbow with his free hand. "I was looking at him in his eyes," he said. "There was just no fear there, like he had resigned to it."

The two men met in 2006, when Muhammad was representing himself in Montgomery County on six murder charges stemming from the 2002 sniper rampage that took 10 lives - six in Maryland, three in Virginia and one in the District of Columbia. Gordon was volunteering as standby counsel at the Montgomery trial.

Lawyer and defendant "forged a really strong relationship," said Melanie Goldman, a cousin of Muhammad's who lives in Virginia.

"John said he could never repay him for all that he did for him," she said. Muhammad told her that "when no one else believed in him, J. Wyndal Gordon believed in his innocence."

In the days before the lethal injection, Gordon and Muhammad spent hours together at the Greensville Correctional Center in southern Virginia. Early Tuesday evening, Gordon insisted to a throng of reporters that his former client had been wrongly convicted. Later that night, he witnessed his first execution.

And his involvement continues, says Gordon, 40, who practices from a downtown office on North Calvert Street. He said he is writing a book about Muhammad's case, an endeavor he says Muhammad himself suggested. He says he has an agent and a working title: "Jury of Our Fears."

"He didn't really trust anybody else like he trusted me," Gordon said of Muhammad, who was 48. "I know his words. I have his writings. I know everything."

The literary project bothers another lawyer who most recently represented Muhammad. Jonathan Sheldon filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that his client was mentally ill and should be spared death.

Sheldon said he likes Gordon and believes he shared a genuine bond with Muhammad, but nonetheless called the book "inappropriate."

"I think it's really, really misguided to use a relationship with an executed client to make a book for profit," Sheldon said.

Goldman, the cousin, supports the book. "I think it's awesome," she said. "If the human side of John can get out and J. Wyndal can do a good job doing that, I don't see anything wrong with it, as long as it's factual."

Tall with a muscular build, Gordon has long been "media-friendly," as he puts it. In 1995, after graduating from the University of Baltimore Law School and starting his firm, the Afro-American newspaper profiled him under the headline, "Dream Comes True for Young Lawyer."

Over the past 14 years, he has built a general civil and criminal practice, representing clients in wrongful death, personal injury and police brutality cases.

In 2006, in a display of ambition and self-confidence, he briefly ran for state attorney general despite impossibly long odds.

That was shortly after he got to know Muhammad, by then condemned to die in Virginia for shooting Dean Meyers at a gas station in Manassas, Va. Though Muhammad opted to act as his own lawyer at the Montgomery trial, standby lawyers were needed.

Gordon, who had a role in one previous capital case, quickly volunteered for the unpaid service. He had several motivations, he said. One was to help ensure Muhammad got a fair trial. Another was to satisfy his curiosity about the case.

He also sensed opportunity: "I thought, this is history in the making. And in the back of my mind, I knew there was some kind of writing - a book or something - involved in this case."

The trial lasted about a month. As Gordon tells it, he and two fellow lawyers would spend all day with Muhammad in a Rockville courtroom and much of the evening strategizing with him at the jail.

"He was grateful we were there; I think that's what fostered our kinship," said Gordon, adding that he used his own money to fly in witnesses. The trial ended with six murder convictions for Muhammad and an equal number of life sentences.

His convicted accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, 24, pleaded guilty and also received six life sentences with no possibility of parole for the Maryland killings. He is serving life in a Virginia prison.

After Muhammad returned to death row in Virginia, Gordon stayed in touch. "If I'd send him a letter, he'd send me one right back," he said. "If he sent me a letter, I'd send him one right back."

Muhammad asked for books such as "Innocent Man" and "Surviving Justice." He requested a range of music - Tupac Shakur, Bob Marley, gospel. In October 2006, he wrote to Gordon and two other standby lawyers. The letter, laden with religious themes, called them Good Samaritans.

"We didn't get it, but at least we fought for it," Muhammad wrote. "Please tell your mothers and fathers that I will always be grateful for their children."

Often the letters contained mere pleasantries. Muhammad stayed unfailingly upbeat, Gordon said. And he always signed off the same way: "Muhammad 'Innocent' still fighting on death row."

Gordon visited Muhammad just once on death row, blaming the 200-mile distance from Baltimore. Sheldon, Muhammad's most recent lawyer, said in an interview that Gordon's absence seemed odd if he felt such a bond with Muhammad. "Where was he for three years?" Sheldon asked.

On Nov. 7, Gordon drove down from Baltimore to Greensville, the site of Virginia's execution chamber. Muhammad had been transferred there from death row. The two spent four hours together, he said, and Muhammad mixed talk of his family with morbid jokes about his looming death.

On Tuesday afternoon, Muhammad met with his son, Lindbergh, 27, and then with his two lawyers from his Fairfax County, Va., murder trial.

Then Gordon returned. Muhammad had shaved his face with an electric razor. His last meal came during this time: chicken with red sauce, chocolate cake, strawberry swirl cake and pineapples.

After nightfall, Gordon stepped outside and spoke at length to reporters massed in the parking lot. In comments that sounded as if he were trying to retry the case, he raised the specter of other possible suspects and claimed that a hole in the trunk of Muhammad's Chevrolet was not big enough to be a gun port.

"We don't discuss guilt or innocence," Gordon said. "We feel like Mr. Muhammad was wrongly convicted based upon the evidence we're aware of."

Gordon described Muhammad in unusually charitable terms. "He's a very authentic person," he said, "very genuine, great sense of humor, kind heart, would help anyone if he could."

Sheldon arrived at the prison as Gordon was holding court. "I was surprised when I saw him at the prison, actually," Sheldon recalled. And he felt Gordon's comments were inappropriate and disrespectful to victims because the appeals were exhausted. "Too little, too late, wrong time," he said.

The two lawyers had developed divergent views of Muhammad. Sheldon, who represented Muhammad for three years, saw a client "delusional" about his innocence.

Gordon, by contrast, saw a seemingly sane man who had been ill-served by the justice system. And, he says, the book will present Muhammad's story "without the filters and rules of evidence that prevented him from getting things in court."

"I think Wyndal talked to him more about these innocence theories," Sheldon said. "I think that endeared him to John Muhammad in a way that enabled Wyndal to have a close relationship with him."

When Gordon went back into the prison, he joined Sheldon outside Muhammad's cell. Saddened by what was about to happen, Gordon asked the condemned man to help brighten his mood. Muhammad, he said, spoke of how he'd changed the views of a white supremacist on his death-row cell block. He claimed the man even wept when Muhammad was moved to Greensville.

A few minutes before the 9 p.m. execution time, six burly prison guards interrupted the conversation. Ushering the lawyers away, they told Muhammad, "It's time."

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