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Sniper trials offer different defense tactics

CHESAPEAKE, Va. -- The photo flashed on a big screen for jurors was the picture of innocence: a scrawny boy neatly dressed in a plaid shirt and dark pants and carrying a Bible.

The boy was Lee Boyd Malvo, before the sniper shootings that terrified the Washington area last fall and before the teenager met his fellow suspect in those killings, John Allen Muhammad.

Today, as a jury in Virginia Beach resumes deliberations in Muhammad's capital murder trial, a jury in Chesapeake will begin hearing testimony in the trial of 18-year-old Malvo.

The defense tactics in each case are markedly different.

Muhammad, when he briefly acted as his own lawyer, said in his opening statement that the evidence would show he did not commit the crimes.

Malvo's lawyers told jurors they would not suggest authorities had the wrong man. However, they say Malvo is innocent by reason of insanity, contending he was brainwashed by Muhammad, the 42-year-old Army veteran he looked up to as a father figure.

Malvo is charged in the Oct. 14, 2002, slaying of Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot store. Muhammad is charged in the Oct. 9, 2002, slaying of Dean Harold Meyers at a gas station.

Each faces two counts of capital murder, one alleging multiple murders in the Washington area and the other charging that they engaged in a form of terrorism. Both could face the death penalty if convicted.

Jurors in Muhammad's trial, which began Oct. 14, learned relatively little about the man's personal life.

Malvo's attorneys showed pictures and stressed his background during their nearly two-hour opening statement Thursday. They described Malvo's unhappy upbringing in Jamaica, where his mother frequently left him with relatives or strangers as she moved around looking for work.

As a boy, he once threatened to hang himself after his mother left him, defense attorney Craig Cooley said. The bullied, obedient boy once confided to a woman he was living with that he had nothing, "not even a dog, not even a bird," Cooley said.

The defense showed jurors photos of Malvo throughout his childhood, both alone and with his mother and the father he rarely saw after his parents split up when he was 5.

It could be difficult for the defense to undermine what appears to be an overwhelming amount of evidence against Malvo, including DNA and fingerprint evidence and a confession to police in which prosecutors say Malvo bragged about the shootings, said Andrew Sacks, a defense attorney who has handled prominent murder cases in Virginia.

"They are really making a play to save his life" by planting the idea that Malvo was a child who was manipulated, he said. "Even if that [insanity] defense doesn't fly, it gives them the opportunity to begin sensitizing the jury to the human side of their client."

That approach could work, given that the jury includes several people with ties to children, including a teacher, a retired teacher, a retired assistant principal, and a lunchroom monitor, said Donald H. Smith, a sociology professor at Old Dominion University who studies jury behavior. Such people probably have dealt with troubled children, making them less likely to respond cynically to the defense's argument, Smith said.

The defense strategies for the two suspects differ outside court, as well. Muhammad's attorneys have said little, while Malvo's attorneys hold daily news conferences.

"It may be part of their effort to let the prosecution know this is going to be a fight to the finish, to keep them guessing," Sacks said.

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