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Sniper suspect quits as own attorney

Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad has changed his mind and will no longer act as his own lawyer in his murder trial, the judge in the case announced Wednesday.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad has changed his mind and will no longer act as his own lawyer in his murder trial, the judge in the case announced Wednesday.

CIRCUIT JUDGE LEROY F. Millette Jr. informed the jury of Muhammad’s decision after a half-hour conference at the judge’s bench. Jonathan Shapiro and Peter Greenspun, who had been advising him on standby since his decision Monday, returned to their former roles as his defense lawyers.

Millette offered no explanation for Muhammad’s change of heart.

Muhammad, accused of killing Dean Harold Meyers as he pumped gas on Oct. 9, 2002, stunned the judge and even his own attorneys on Monday when he demanded the right to represent himself just as opening arguments were to begin in his death penalty trial.

Prosecutors on Tuesday had complained about Muhammad’s self-representation, even asking at one point for the judge to rescind it. They said Muhammad was receiving too much help from Shapiro and Greenspun, whose role as standby counsel was supposed to be limited.

Millette ordered Muhammad to physically distance himself from the two lawyers to minimize communications between them.

Still, Millette had said on Tuesday that Muhammad had been representing himself competently.

After Wednesday’s announcement, Greenspun launched a series of objections during the testimony of Chris Okupski of Trenton, N.J., who sold Muhammad the Chevrolet Caprice prosecutors believe was the vehicle used in the sniper attacks.


Greenspun won many of his objections, something that happened only rarely when Muhammad represented himself.

Muhammad’s decision to act as his own attorney had created an awkward situation Tuesday as he cross-examined one of his alleged victims, restaurant owner Paul J. LaRuffa of Clinton, Md.

LaRuffa survived a gunshot wound to the chest Sept. 5, 2002, as he closed his restaurant. He was robbed of $3,600 and a laptop computer, which prosecutors say helped finance the sniper spree the following month. The computer was found in Muhammad’s car when he was arrested.

Muhammad began his questioning of LaRuffa by saying he meant no disrespect and that “I understand how you feel when your life is on the line.” The judge admonished Muhammad for making that statement, saying it was gratuitous.

After court Tuesday, LaRuffa described the cross-examination as surreal.

“It’s from the twilight zone,” LaRuffa said. “Defendants aren’t supposed to question you, and that’s what happened.”

During questioning by prosecutors, LaRuffa said he had gotten into his car when he saw a figure to his left and a flash of light, and then a window broke as he was shot at close range.

“I said I wasn’t going to die,” LaRuffa said. “I said, ’I’m not dying in this parking lot.”’

Prosecutors played a tape of a 911 call made by a restaurant customer. During the call, LaRuffa could be heard in the background, pleading: “Hurry up, I’m having trouble breathing.”


Earlier Tuesday, a police officer testified that Muhammad lied to him and persuaded him to let him drive away from the crime scene after a Maryland man was shot and killed last October.

Prince William County Officer Steven Bailey said he stopped Muhammad as he tried to drive his Chevrolet Caprice out of a parking lot across the street from a gasoline station near Manassas in northern Virginia where Meyers, 53, of Gaithersburg, Md., was killed as he pumped gasoline.

Bailey said that a “very polite and very courteous” Muhammad told him he had been directed into the parking lot by police officers and that he allowed him to leave as he dealt with motorists trying to flee the area.

Bailey said he later realized that Muhammad’s story wasn’t true.

When Muhammad cross-examined Bailey, he asked, “Did that make sense to you?” Bailey replied, “I didn’t catch on. I wish I had.”

Earlier, Muhammad withdrew a request that might have allowed him to introduce mental-health evidence at his trial.

On the second day of his murder trial, Muhammad told Millette Jr. that he had “changed his mind on that,” referring to his appeal of a ruling barring the presentation of any mental health evidence in his behalf because he refused to meet with prosecutors’ psychiatrist.

In delivering his opening statement on Monday, Muhammad broke a year of silence by telling the jury: “I had nothing to do with these crimes.”


“Please pay attention. My life and my son’s life is on the line,” he said, apparently referring to his co-defendant, Lee Boyd Malvo, whom he frequently passed off as his son during their travels across the country last year.

Muhammad, 42 and Malvo, 18, are accused of going on a three-week shooting spree in Virginia, Maryland and Washington last autumn that left 10 people dead. Meyers was the seventh victim of the sniper.

Muhammad faces two murder charges in Meyers’ death, one of which is the first test of a state anti-terrorism law crafted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Under that law, Muhammad could be convicted of murder even if he did not pull the trigger in the Manassas killing. He also faces one charge of conspiracy and a weapons charge.

Malvo is scheduled to go on trial next month in Chesapeake, also in southeast Virginia, in the Oct. 14, 2002, shooting death of FBI analyst Linda Franklin.

Both trials were moved to southern Virginia because of heavy publicity, and both defendants could face the death penalty.

NBC’s Carl Rochelle, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.