Psychologist Testifies on 'Indoctrination' of Sniper Suspect

New York Times/December 9, 2003
By James Dao

Chesapeake, Va. -- Months after he confessed to all of the Washington-area sniper shootings last year, Lee Malvo told a psychologist that his confession was a lie intended to protect the actual gunman, John A. Muhammad, the psychologist testified on Monday.

The psychologist, Dewey Cornell, said Mr. Malvo, 18, so thoroughly idolized Mr. Muhammad, 42, and had been so completely indoctrinated by the older man, whom he called his father, that he was prepared to go to jail or even death row to shield him.

In the weeks of "training" for the shootings that left 10 people dead, Mr. Muhammad told Mr. Malvo that he must "self-destruct" if arrested, Dr. Cornell said. The younger man understood that to mean that he should "take full responsibilities for the crimes," he said. "The most important thing in his life was to fulfill the mission and not disappoint his father," said Dr. Cornell, testifying for the defense.

In interviews with investigators last November, Mr. Malvo took credit for firing all of the fatal shots, including one that killed Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot in Falls Church. The teenager could be heard laughing about the shootings in taped remarks that were played for jurors last month.

Mr. Malvo is on trial in the killing of Mrs. Franklin, and he could face the death penalty if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Mr. Muhammad was sentenced to death by a jury in Virginia Beach last month for the killing of Dean Meyers in Manassas.

Dr. Cornell testified that Mr. Malvo recanted his confession after several months in jail, when he began to break free of Mr. Muhammad's sway. At that time, he said, Mr. Malvo told him he had served as a spotter in the Franklin shooting, giving Mr. Muhammad the green light to shoot.

During their conversations, Mr. Malvo took credit for one shooting, that of a bus driver in Montgomery County, Md., Dr. Cornell said.

Dr. Cornell was the latest of several mental health experts whose testimony was intended to convince jurors that Mr. Malvo was so in thrall to Mr. Muhammad that he could not make independent moral judgments.

Dr. Cornell, who met with Mr. Malvo 21 times and interviewed him for 54 hours, testified that he believed Mr. Malvo had a mental illness at the time of the crimes that made it impossible for him to tell right from wrong.

Under questioning from Craig S. Cooley, one of Mr. Malvo's lawyers, Dr. Cornell gave one of the most detailed descriptions yet of Mr. Malvo's recollections of how the plan for the shootings evolved. The psychologist said Mr. Malvo told him that Mr. Muhammad began training him for an unspecified mission after Mr. Muhammad's former wife gained custody of their three children in late 2001.

"He understood he was being trained to do something to get the children back," Dr. Cornell said.

That training included learning how to use high-powered rifles, playing stalking games on shooting ranges, playing sniper-style video games and watching war movies. Dr. Cornell compared the training to the indoctrination that child soldiers in Africa experience.

Once a firm but warm father figure, Mr. Muhammad increasingly became a drill sergeant, coaching Mr. Malvo not to "let himself have feelings" and to act like a "soldier on a mission," Dr. Cornell said.

To give jurors a taste of the so-called indoctrination, Mr. Cooley showed the jurors snippets from video games and the film "The Matrix," which he said Mr. Malvo watched more than 100 times, including just before the Franklin shooting.

Mr. Muhammad also taught Mr. Malvo his brand of black nationalism drawn from the teachings of the Nation of Islam, Dr. Cornell said. He required Mr. Malvo to read speeches by black separatist leaders and even played recordings of those speeches to Mr. Malvo while he slept.

The core of that philosophy taught that white people were "devils" who had enslaved black people, making violent rebellion and the killing of innocents morally acceptable, Dr. Cornell said.

"Lee came to believe there could be a revolution" if he only followed Mr. Muhammad's teachings, Dr. Cornell said.

Shedding light on an issue raised on Friday, Dr. Cornell testified that Mr. Malvo took to shooting rocks at stray cats with a slingshot because his mother had beaten him after a cat repeatedly used his bed as a litter box.

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