Sniper Victim Faces Sniper Suspect

In a dramatic encounter that will be echoed throughout his trial, John Allen Muhammad cross-examined a restaurant owner Tuesday who was wounded and robbed in a shooting linked to last year's sniper spree, telling him "I understand how you feel when your life is on the line."

Paul J. LaRuffa's testimony came a day after Muhammad was allowed to represent himself on murder charges related to the killing of Dean Harold Meyers outside a Virginia gas station on Oct. 9, 2002.

LaRuffa testified about the shooting a month earlier in which he was wounded in the chest and arm and robbed of about $3,600 and a laptop computer that was found with Muhammad when he was arrested. Prosecutors told the jury during opening statements that the sniper suspects robbed LaRuffa to help finance the spree.

Muhammad was courteous when questioning LaRuffa, who initially looked away from the sniper suspect but proceeded to answer his questions politely.

"I'm not asking these questions to be disrespectful. I understand how you feel when your life is on the line," Muhammad told LaRuffa before the questioning.

Muhammad asked a few quick questions about whether LaRuffa had seen the person who shot him. Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. admonished Muhammad at the prosecution's request for his introductory comments to LaRuffa, which Millette deemed gratuitous.

During questioning from prosecutors, LaRuffa said that after closing his restaurant in Clinton, Md., and getting in his car, "I saw a figure to my left. I saw a flash of light. The window broke. I heard shots. I was being shot. I said I wasn't going to die. I said, 'I'm not dying in this parking lot."'

LaRuffa, who choked back tears during part of his testimony, said he could not identify the man who shot him. He realized shortly afterward that he was bleeding from both the chest and the back. One bullet fragment lodged next to his spinal cord.

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

"It's from the twilight zone. Defendants aren't supposed to question you, and that's what happened," he said. Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen says "Muhammad isn't doing a terrible job as his own lawyer. He has asked witnesses some common-sense questions that jurors probably appreciated hearing the answers to. But over the long haul of the trial, he is clearly not going to be able to master what is really a very complex prosecution case."

In other testimony Tuesday, a policeman said he spoke to Muhammad near the scene of the shooting for which he is on trial, but let him go as the officer dealt with panicked drivers trying to flee the area.

Prince William Officer Steven Bailey testified that Muhammad was "very polite and very courteous" when they spoke as Muhammad drove his Chevrolet Caprice out of a restaurant parking lot where police believe the snipers fired the shot that killed Meyers. The meeting with the officer occurred just a half-hour after the shooting.

Bailey said Muhammad told him that police had actually directed him into the parking lot as they secured the crime scene. Only later that night did Bailey find out that was untrue.

"I didn't catch on. I wish I had," Bailey told Muhammad on cross-examination. Muhammad is serving as his own lawyer.

Police have said they had several encounters with the sniper suspects during the killing spree that terrorized the Washington area, but the manhunt was focused on a white van thought to be the sniper vehicle.

Bailey said he faced a difficult situation in which he interviewed every driver leaving the parking lot, preventing people from leaving who were scared to be at the scene.

"We were having problems with people getting irate, wanting to leave the scene," he said.

Muhammad asked Bailey, "Did you ever see me with a weapon?" and Bailey responded "No." Muhammad has asked similar questions of many witnesses in the case.

Bailey also testified that he found a Baltimore map book in the restaurant parking lot, which was later determined to have Muhammad's fingerprints on it. The map book is one of the few pieces of physical evidence linking Muhammad to the Manassas crime scene.

Muhammad, 42, and fellow suspect Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, are charged with 13 shootings, including 10 deaths, over a three-week span last October in the Washington area. They are also suspected or charged in shootings in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Arizona and Washington state.

Muhammad's trial took a surprising turn Monday when he was granted the right to serve as his own lawyer.

But prosecutors complained Tuesday that Muhammad's court-appointed attorneys are playing too large a role in the case. Muhammad made his opening statements and has questioned witnesses, but his attorneys were allowed to stay at his side to provide assistance.

"It's apparent the defendant cannot act as his own counsel," said assistant prosecutor Richard Conway. "The current situation is intolerable."

Millette agreed that Muhammad was getting too much help, saying the defense lawyers should only interact with Muhammad when he specifically requests for help. Muhammad agreed to physically separate himself from his standby lawyers to reduce communication.

So far, though, Millette said Muhammad "appears to be competently representing himself, appears to be asking questions appropriately, seems to understand his legal rights."