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Sniper Suspect Defends Self, Says Case Is Just Guesswork

By James Dao

The New York Times -- VIRGINIA BEACH, Va.

John Allen Muhammad, the accused mastermind of the Washington-area sniper shootings, fired his lawyers on Monday and took control of his own defense, telling the jury in a rambling but at times forceful opening argument that “I had nothing to do with these crimes.”

The surprise move seemed the result of a sharp philosophical clash between Muhammad and his three court-appointed lawyers, whose pretrial motions and remarks suggested they would focus more on avoiding capital punishment for Muhammad than on winning an acquittal.

But the moment Muhammad strode to the lectern to present his opening statement on Monday morning, he made clear his goal would be to demonstrate that he was innocent of any crimes and was the victim of an unjust prosecution built on guesswork.

“They are saying the entire case is based on a theory,” said Muhammad, who began haltingly in a lisping drawl, but seemed to gain confidence as he spoke for nearly 30 minutes.

“I’m locked up, I’m denied my constitutional rights, based on a guess,” said Muhammad, a 42-year-old former Army sergeant.

The decision by Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. to allow Muhammad to represent himself came at the start of a dramatic first day of arguments and testimony in which the prosecution outlined its extensive circumstantial evidence linking Muhammad and the man accused of being his accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, to 10 fatal shootings last fall.

Malvo, who is scheduled to stand trial next month, made a brief appearance in the courtroom so that a witness could identify him. Wearing an orange jumpsuit, Malvo, 18, peered silently at Muhammad -- whom he has described as his father -- before being led away by two sheriff’s deputies.

The witness, a bank employee, testified that she saw Muhammad and Malvo parked outside her office about an hour before the shooting of Dean H. Meyers while he pumped gas at a Sunoco station in Manassas, Va., on Oct. 9, 2002. The bank was less than a quarter mile from the Sunoco, the witness said.

Muhammad faces two murder charges that could result in a death sentence. Even if he is found guilty, he will probably be prosecuted in the other killings, a process that could take years.

Experts said that Muhammad’s decision to represent himself would be particularly significant if he were found guilty, as many experts say is likely, and the trial moved into a penalty phase when the jury would decide whether he should be executed. That decision will turn on whether he can effectively argue that mitigating evidence like mental illness or childhood problems should call for a sentence of life in prison without parole.

“If you have good counsel, you have a very good chance of avoiding the death penalty,” said Jamie Orenstein, a former federal prosecutor, referring to the presentation of mitigating evidence. “If you’ve got bad counsel, you’re likely to be sentenced to death. Now he’s got the very worst possible counsel.”

In a 25-minute discussion at the judge’s bench before the opening arguments, Millette urged Muhammad to reconsider his motion to represent himself, saying he had “zero” experience. “It’s a mistake to do this,” he told Muhammad, who stood bolt upright as he listened intently.