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Psychologist Says Sniper Was Indoctrinated by Father Figure

By James Dao

The New York Times -- CHESAPEAKE, Va.

Months after he confessed to almost all of the Washington-area sniper shootings last year, Lee Boyd Malvo told a psychologist that his confession was a lie intended to protect the real shooter, John Allen Muhammad, the psychologist testified on Monday.

The psychologist, Dewey Cornell, said that Malvo, 18, so thoroughly idolized Muhammad, 42, and had been so completely indoctrinated by the older man, whom he called his father, that he was prepared to go to jail or even death row to shield Muhammad.

During weeks of “training” for the shootings that left 10 people dead in the Washington area, Muhammad told Malvo he must “self-destruct” if arrested, Cornell said. The younger man understood that to mean that he should “take full responsibilities for the crimes,” Cornell said. “The most important thing in his life was to fulfill the mission and not disappoint his father,” said Cornell, testifying for the defense.

In interviews with investigators in November 2002, Malvo took credit for firing all of the fatal shots, including one that killed Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot in Falls Church, Va. The teenager laughed about the crimes in taped remarks that were played for jurors last month.

Malvo is on trial in the killing of Franklin, facing the death penalty if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. A jury in Virginia Beach sentenced Muhammad to death last month for the killing of Dean Meyers in Manassas, Va.

Cornell testified that Malvo recanted his confession after several months in jail, when he began to break free of Muhammad’s sway. At that time, he said, Malvo told him he had served as a spotter in the Franklin shooting, using and giving Muhammad the green light to shoot.

During their conversations, Malvo took credit for only one shooting, that of a bus driver in Montgomery County, Cornell said.

Cornell was the latest of several defense mental health experts whose testimony was intended to convince jurors that Malvo was so in thrall to Muhammad that he could not make independent moral judgments.

Cornell, who met with Malvo 21 times and interviewed him for 54 hours, testified that he believed Malvo suffered from a mental illness at the time of the crimes, making it impossible for him to tell right from wrong.

Under questioning from Craig S. Cooley, one of Malvo’s lawyers, Cornell gave one of the most detailed descriptions yet of Malvo’s view on the evolution of the sniper plot. The psychologist said Malvo told him that Muhammad had begun training him for an unspecified mission after Muhammad’s former wife gained sole custody of their three children in late 2001.

“He understood he was being trained to do something to get the children back,” Cornell testified.

That training included learning how to use high-powered rifles, playing “stalking games” on shooting ranges, viewing sniper training videos, playing sniper-style video games and watching violent war movies. Cornell compared the training to the indoctrination that child soldiers in Africa experience.

Once a firm but warm father figure, Muhammad increasingly became a drill sergeant, coaching Malvo to “not let himself have feelings” and to act like a “soldier on a mission,” Cornell testified.

To give jurors a taste of the so-called indoctrination, Cooley showed the jurors snippets from video games and the film “The Matrix,” which he said Malvo watched more than 100 times, once just before the Franklin shooting.

Muhammad also taught Malvo his brand of black nationalism drawn from the teachings of the Nation of Islam, Cornell said. He required Malvo to read speeches by black separatist leaders and even played recordings of those speeches to Malvo while he slept.

The core of that philosophy taught that white people were “devils” who had enslaved black people, making violent rebellion and the killing of innocents morally acceptable, Cornell said. Muhammad also said he wanted to extort $10 million from the government so he could create a utopian community.