Defense Portrays Sniper Suspect as Indoctrinated

New York Times/November 21, 2003
By Adam Liptak

Chesapeake, Va. -- Lee Malvo learned to shoot, his lawyers say, by playing "very realistic and gory" video games given him by John A. Muhammad.

"If you get hit," Craig S. Cooley, one of Mr. Malvo's lawyers, said in his opening statement at Mr. Malvo's capital murder trial here for his role in the Washington-area sniper shootings, "you bleed and you die, unless you hit a particular code, and most of these games have a code where you become invincible, where you become immortal."

"Game players call it the God mode," he continued. "When you punch that in on some of those games, it says, 'I am God.' "

The snipers, as it happened, used code words to communicate with the authorities in October 2002, the lead prosecutor in the case, Robert F. Horan Jr., told the same jury.

"For you, Mr. Police," the notes and phone messages all said. "Call me God."

That Mr. Cooley should have thought his anecdote a helpful one illustrates the fine line the defense means to walk, simultaneously acknowledging Mr. Malvo's complicity in the shootings and insisting that he was brainwashed by Mr. Muhammad. Mr. Muhammad, 42, was convicted of capital murder this week. A jury will resume deliberations Monday on whether to sentence him to death.

But the story also illuminates the contradictions within Mr. Malvo. He was by all accounts a very poor, sheltered, sweet and obedient young man, who after three years with Mr. Muhammad was capable of making admissions to the authorities worthy of "In Cold Blood."

He was a teenager who liked to play video games, and he was a young man who bragged about the people he killed by shots to the head from his Bushmaster rifle.

The detectives and the prison guards he spoke to last year said he was cheerful, polite and very candid, and two sets of audiotapes played for the jury seem to confirm that.

His lawyers insist that it was his obedient nature and search for a father figure that made Mr. Malvo, now 18, a particularly good candidate for training in terror and murder.

They will start to make their case to a jury here on Monday, through witnesses who knew Mr. Malvo as a child in Jamaica and Antigua and others who saw him under Mr. Muhammad's tutelage in the United States. The defense will also present a number of mental health experts, who will say that Mr. Malvo received such a severe indoctrination that his state of mind amounted to insanity.

Even if that defense does not result in acquittal, it may well give the jury a reason to spare Mr. Malvo's life in a separate penalty phase.

To this day, his lawyers say, Mr. Malvo remains under Mr. Muhammad's sway. "The separation process is continuing," Mr. Cooley said in an interview, "and I suspect it will continue for some time."

Mr. Horan, the lead prosecutor, said during jury selection that he had little use for "the mental health crowd."

He told the jury in his opening statement that it should take Mr. Malvo's words at face value and convict him. "You need two to do it, a spotter and you need a shooter," he said, describing Mr. Malvo's statements. "He told the police both jobs are equally important."

"Does that sound like the utterings of an insane man?" Mr. Horan asked the jury.

Mr. Malvo's apparent confessions, taped on Nov. 7, 2002, were, his lawyers say, part of the indoctrination.

"He was programmed as to what to say to the enemy if he was caught," Mr. Cooley said. "He was to self-destruct."

The voice on the tapes is by turns jocular and analytic. Mr. Malvo expresses regret only that he did not succeed in killing everyone he shot and that he was caught.

Offered small blandishments by the detective, he said, "The art of negotiation is good."

Mr. Muhammad was, everyone says, an attentive parent in many ways, to his own children as well as to Mr. Malvo. A 10-year military veteran, he provided Mr. Malvo with an education, although it was one rooted in grievance and paramilitary tactics.

"We had a strategy from the beginning," Mr. Malvo said on one tape. "You keep your enemy fortified. You stretch them out and make them weak."

He clarified his statement a moment later. "Too many factions," he said, referring to conflicts among law enforcement officials from the federal government, two states and the District of Columbia. "Too many jurisdictions."

If he and Mr. Muhammad had not been captured, Mr. Malvo added, the government would have had to declare martial law.

"Bringing the military in," he said, "would tear this side of the country up with the economy, tear this whole faction up. Tear this whole section of the country up."

Mr. Cooley compared Mr. Malvo to the acolyte of a cult, and to an American soldier brainwashed in the Korean War.

During questioning last November, Mr. Malvo talked about another form of brainwashing. He said no jury could be fair to him because of the influence of the news media.

"It's called subjection hypnosis," he said. "You hear something long enough, then you believe it."

Mr. Malvo was born in the slums of Kingston, Jamaica, on Feb. 18, 1985. His father, Leslie Malvo, was a construction worker. His mother, Una James, was a seamstress. His lawyers say his early years were happy.

But his parents separated when he was 5, in a bitter breakup. Lee and his mother moved to Endeavor, in Jamaica's mountainous interior, and he went to 10 different schools. His mother would leave him with caretakers, and she was not always rigorous about sending money or turning up when she promised to, his lawyers said.

When Lee Malvo was 12, Ms. James moved with him to Antigua and left him alone there for months at a time. When he threatened suicide, his lawyers said, he was punished.

In 2000, Ms. James bought some forged identification documents from Mr. Muhammad, then living in Antigua with his three children, snatched from their mother in a custody battle in Washington State.

Mr. Muhammad took an interest in Mr. Malvo, and Mr. Malvo grew attached to Mr. Muhammad.

"He was well cut, buff, disciplined, charming, a caring parent," Mr. Cooley told the jury, "and for a child who desired a relationship with an adult male all of his life, he was the perfect fit."

"He was," Mr. Cooley told reporters after court, "every parent's worst nightmare."

The man and boy played video games, including a flight simulator. The boy started to take an interest in physical fitness and adopted the older man's American accent and his Muslim faith. He started to call Mr. Muhammad his father.

In May 2001, they flew to Florida together, with Mr. Malvo using forged papers. After a spell with his mother, who was living in Florida, Mr. Malvo took a bus to Bellingham, Wash., in October 2001. That, his lawyers say, is where the indoctrination, involving military training, physical workouts, reading and violent video games, began in earnest.

"He's trained and desensitized with video games, computer games, to train him to shoot human forms over and over," Mr. Cooley told the jury.

Under questioning last November, Mr. Malvo said he had been shooting for less than a year, having trained with paper plates. They represented, he said, people's heads.

In court, wearing boyish crew-necked sweaters, Mr. Malvo often doodles. On the first day of trial, his lawyers showed the jury a self-portrait Mr. Malvo created not long after he was arrested.

It shows him in jail, rather more muscular than he is in person but nonetheless covering his head. At the top of the drawing, he wrote, "Face of failure." At the bottom, he added: "Failure means death. Sorry, Dad."

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