D.C. Sniper Trials
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GWEN IFILL: Jury selection for the trial of 18-year-old alleged sniper, Lee Boyd Malvo, has now begun in Chesapeake, Va. The trial of his alleged accomplice, John Allen Muhammad, has been underway for three weeks in nearby Virginia Beach.
The men are on trial for two of ten murders that took place during a three-week killing spree in the Washington, D.C., area last October. They are also suspects in five other murder cases. For an update on these trials, we’re joined by Sari Horwitz, an investigative reporter at the Washington Post. She is the co-author of the book, “Sniper: Inside the Hunt for the Killers Who Terrorized the Nation.” Welcome, Sari.
SARI HORWITZ: Thank you, Gwen.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s start with the John Allen Muhammad case. That is the one in which the prosecution has now rested. What is the case that they were making against him.
SARI HORWITZ: It’s interesting — the juxtaposition of these two trials is fascinating because they’re on parallel tracks but they’re very different. In prosecutors in the Muhammad case are arguing that John Muhammad was the captain of the killing team, that he was in control, that he thought of this plot and really manipulated Lee Boyd Malvo to participate.
They brought on much forensic evidence — DNA, fingerprints found at the crime scene, ballistic evidence that shows that the bullet fragments in the victims’ bodies matched the gun that was found in the Chevy Caprice where John Muhammad was when he was arrested. They brought witnesses who saw the Chevy Caprice throughout the Washington area during the sniper attacks. They brought survivors, people that were shot. One man was shot six times and survived. That is how they built their case.
GWEN IFILL: But did they find actual evidence that Muhammad himself did the shooting, where his fingerprints were on the gun?
SARI HORWITZ: His fingerprints were on the gun but the defense team, Muhammad’s defense team, two excellent attorneys, they will argue in the defense case that begins tomorrow that nobody saw John Muhammad shoot the gun, that this is a circumstantial case, that under Virginia law they have to prove who pulled the trigger.
GWEN IFILL: You talked about the witnesses and the victims, the people who had been shot. There was some pretty emotional testimony — for instance the young man who was the young junior high school student who was shot and came and testified.
SARI HORWITZ: Yes. There was wrenching testimony in the last few weeks. Iran Brown was shot. He survived miraculously. He came into court. His mother did not want him to testify. But he came into court. We write a lot about him in our book — about his case. He came and he said that this has brought him closer to God.
GWEN IFILL: So in the case that the prosecution is trying to make against John Allen Muhammad, at one point he actually took over his own defense and said, “I can defend myself.” That didn’t last long. That was a dramatic moment.
SARI HORWITZ: It was surreal. John Muhammad said he basically fired his attorneys and said I can do this case by myself. And it’s really quintessential John Muhammad, the John Muhammad that Michael Wayne and I learned about in researching this book because this is a man who wants to always be in control. He wanted to control his children. He eventually abducted them and took them to the Caribbean. He wanted to control his wife. He threatened to kill her. He wanted to control Lee Boyd Malvo. In the end he wanted to control his destiny in court.
GWEN IFILL: But ultimately he must have realized he doesn’t do it because he decided not to defend himself after a couple days.
SARI HORWITZ: A lot of people think it’s easy to be an attorney. He found he didn’t know the rules of evidence. He also had a toothache and said he couldn’t continue and turned the case back over to his attorneys.
GWEN IFILL: You mentioned his protégé, Lee Malvo. He actually was brought to the courtroom on more than one occasion for what purpose?
SARI HORWITZ: Well, they had witnesses they wanted to put on the stand who saw Malvo at various shootings not in the Washington area but in the Atlanta area and Louisiana. They saw him and they wanted these witnesses so say, yes, that was the man, that was the boy I saw.
GWEN IFILL: He didn’t actually speak. He just stood there and then left.
SARI HORWITZ: He would not testify. He just came into the courtroom.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about his trial which now begins in a separate location. Both of these by the way change of venue because people figure they couldn’t get a fair jury in the immediate Washington area so it’s a couple of hours away from here. Lee Malvo, what is the case that the prosecution is prepared to make against him?
SARI HORWITZ: This is going to be a very interesting trial, Gwen, because the prosecutors in this case as opposed to the ones in the John Muhammad case, they’re going to say Lee Malvo was very independent thinking. He was a willful participant in this. He wasn’t manipulated.
GWEN IFILL: How old was he at the time again?
SARI HORWITZ: Seventeen. But the cornerstone of their case is going to be Malvo’s own words. His confession to the police and the FBI after he was arrested — I don’t know if it’s going to all come out in court but we have it all in the book. His confession for six hours he spoke to the police and the FBI. Muhammad didn’t say a word but Malvo did. The confession is chilling in its detail. It is really the only window we have into the minds of Muhammad and Malvo.
GWEN IFILL: Is it boastful?
SARI HORWITZ: Very. He boasts. He’s proud. He brags about what they did. He laughs when talking about the head shots they took. He says there was a purpose to it all. It was all planned out. They did not kill the 13-year-old, Iran Brown, he said, because children were around. But he said they did the shooting in Virginia because they knew the police were all working on it in Maryland and D.C. and they weren’t in Virginia. They said they killed five people in one day because they knew the police couldn’t handle it.
GWEN IFILL: Have there been any questions raised about the defense about the veracity or the usability of this confession?
SARI HORWITZ: The defense has tried to not allow it in court but they have failed in that regard. But they argue that it’s all a lie — that really Malvo is trying to protect his father figure John Muhammad and that this confession for six hours can’t be taken seriously, that Lee Malvo was controlled, manipulated, indoctrinated, brainwashed by John Muhammad.
GWEN IFILL: Ultimately he’s pleading insanity.
SARI HORWITZ: Not guilty by reason of insanity. And the jury will have to decide whether it meets the legal standard: Did Lee Malvo know right from wrong? Were his mental problems so severe that he didn’t understand what was going on?
GWEN IFILL: One of the most fascinating aspects of this trial is the relationship between these two men even though they are being tried separately, it seems that at the heart of both the defense and the prosecution is what the nature was of this relationship. What can you tell us about that?
SARI HORWITZ: Well, it’s enigmatic, Gwen. We spent a lot of time on this in the book because it’s the heart of the whole thing. We know that Lee Malvo was searching for a parent figure. He really didn’t have a father figure in his life. His mother was never around when he was growing up in Jamaica. He meets John Muhammad in the year 2000 on the island of Antigua and John Muhammad really wanted a child. He was in a custody battle with his wife over his children. And the two bonded. Really from the beginning, you can see the influence. We talk to people on the islands who saw the influence Muhammad had over Malvo who converted from being a 7th day Adventist to … he converted to Islam; he began quoting the Koran. He dropped out of school. He no longer wanted to be with anybody but John Muhammad.
GWEN IFILL: Because both of these cases have gotten so much publicity not only in the Washington area but around the country. Now that the jury selection phase has started for the Malvo trial, are the defense attorneys satisfied that they can indeed get a fair trial?
SARI HORWITZ: I think they’re concerned about it. But they have come out and said that they think they have a good jury pool. Today they’ve chosen more than half of the jury pool. The attorneys in Virginia Beach in the Muhammad trial were able to get a jury that satisfied both sides. So I think that by going 200 miles south, there are people that were not terrorized like we all were in the Washington area.
GWEN IFILL: Sari Horowitz, thank you very much.
SARI HORWITZ: Thank you, Gwen.