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Police officer testifies he let sniper suspect go

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- A policeman spoke to sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad just a half-hour after the shooting for which he is on trial, but let him go as the officer tried to deal with angry, panicked drivers trying to leave the scene, a jury at Muhammad's murder trial was told yesterday.

Prince William County Police 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 from where police believe the snipers fired the shot that killed Dean Harold Meyers on Oct. 9, 2002.

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 defending himself in court.

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.

Prosecutors complained yesterday 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."

Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. 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."

The trial's sixth day began with Muhammad withdrawing a request that might have allowed him to introduce mental health evidence.

"I've changed my mind on that," Muhammad told Millette.

Muhammad had been barred from presenting any such evidence because he refused to meet with prosecutors' mental health expert. On Monday, he had asked Millette to reconsider that ruling in hopes of using it as mitigating evidence at sentencing if he is convicted.

A witness to the shooting of Meyers testified that he heard the shot and saw Meyers as he lay in a pool of blood beside a gas pump.

Jason Salazar said he immediately assumed it was a sniper shooting and told prosecutor Paul Ebert that he "went inside the store, dug down. We felt unsafe, scared."

The testimony could bolster the prosecution's theory that the sniper shootings amounted to acts of terrorism.

On cross-examination, Muhammad asked Salazar, "Can you recall seeing me at the area?" Salazar said he couldn't.

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