A Fool For A Client?

Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, listens to cour proceedings in Courtroom 10 at the Virginia Beach Circuit Court for the third day of jury selection in Virginia Beach, Va., Thursday Oct. 16, 2003. Muhammad faces two counts of capital murder in the shooting death of Dean Harold Meyers in October 2002. AP

Sniper defendant John Allen Muhammad has the right to be wrong. He has the right to represent himself during his capital murder trial in Virginia Beach, Virginia even though common sense and the law both dictate that he should leave the lawyering to his lawyers. But common sense didn't exactly put Muhammad where he is today, which is to say in big trouble, which is why it shouldn't come as the biggest surprise in the world that the defendant would ditch his experienced defense attorneys just when he needs them most.

The move probably won't make a huge difference in the outcome of the case and it almost certainly won't give Muhammad an appellate issue that he didn't already have. Either Virginia has the goods on Muhammad or it doesn't. If it does, nothing Muhammad is going to say as his own attorney is going to convince his already skeptical jury that he deserves a break. And if Virginia doesn't have a case, well, the appellate courts are probably going to take care of that down the road.

So my best guess is that Muhammad took control of his own defense because he wants to use the extraordinary public forum he now has to make some sort of political statement about crime and punishment in America. Think: "Theodore Kaczynski meets Zacarias Moussaoui" and you have an idea of the potential this trial now possesses for zaniness.

So far, it's not hard to conclude that jurors soon will grow bored with Muhammad's courtroom style. In his opening statement, which was pointedly devoid of facts, Muhammad sounded like a bad college philosophy lecture.

"There's three truths," he told jurors. "The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I always thought there was just one truth... Jesus said, '"Ye shall know the truth.'"

Uh, huh.

Anyone want to bet that jurors are inclined right now to believe Virginia's version of "the truth" over Muhammad's version? After all, how much credibility and respect can you have with a group of strangers (i.e. the jurors) after the government has just finished calling you a murderous thug? And how long do you figure it will take before the natural curiosity that jurors might initially have toward Muhammad will turn into frustration and then antipathy? After all, each meandering minute Muhammad spends talking about Jesus is another minute jurors are away from their families, friends and jobs.

There is a chance that Muhammad's added role -- courtroom oracle -- will simplify the trial. It's possible that he will be unwilling to cross-examine certain prosecution witnesses or to bring to the stand certain defense witnesses. It's possible that prosecutors will pare their own case knowing that Muhammad, and not his seasoned defense team, will be questioning government evidence.

It's even possible that Muhammad will present no defense whatsoever when his turn comes around. Remember, a few weeks ago Prince William County Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette, Jr. ruled that Muhammad's attorneys could not present evidence of his mental condition because Muhammad refused to be evaluated by a doctor sent by prosecutors. Perhaps it was this episode that created the schism that led to Muhammad's dual role as attorney and client -- after all, there have been plenty of capital defendants over the years, including the aforementioned Kaczynski, who haven't wanted their attorneys to tell their jurors that they were crazy.

But it is more likely that Muhammad the Attorney will complicate the trial, either because he simply doesn't know how to follow the intricate rules of the court or because he wants to take the trial in a direction the judge is unwilling to see it go. It's probable that Muhammad will object to certain things that are unobjectionable. It's probable that he will begin to examine prosecution witnesses and then get stymied, requiring the judge or even his own attorneys, now designated as "standby counsel," to bail him out. It's probable that he will say something that requires a prosecution objection, which also would make the long days in court seem even longer. Right now there is just no way to know for sure how this startling new dynamic will shape the length and breadth of the trial.

Muhammad's move means that Judge Millette will have to be extra careful and attentive in court in order to ensure that Muhammad is given every conceivable opportunity to understand what legal options he has at any given point. The judge will have to spend more in-court time explaining things to jurors and Muhammad than he would have before the change. He will probably give the defendant more latitude in questioning than he would have given Muhammad's attorneys. In short, the judge now will have to serve as Muhammad's guardian of sorts, someone who has got to make sure the guy gets a fair trial in spite of himself. And if Muhammad shows that he simply cannot manage the load, Millette almost certainly will reinstate the lawyers and relegate Muhammad back to mere "client" status.

For prosecutors, Muhammad's move probably is an overall positive. Sure, he is likely to gum up the works from time to time during the course of the trial. But I'm sure prosecutors feel fairly confident that Muhammad will not endear himself to jurors over the course of the next few weeks. Meanwhile, what better way to try to convince jurors that Muhammad is a "controlling" sort of fellow -- these prosecutors, remember, want jurors to believe that Muhammad controlled the other sniper suspect, Lee Malvo, during the course of the attacks -- than to have them understand that Muhammad wanted so much control over his own defense that he was willing to give up his own attorneys and, with them, the last best chance to save his life.
  • Andrew Cohen

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