Critical Malvo witness grilled

Prosecution challenges claim that teen was a pawn of lead sniper

Richmond Times-Dispatch/December 9, 2003
By Paul Bradley and Kiran Krishnamurthy

Chesapeake -- Prosecutors yesterday attacked the premise that Lee Boyd Malvo was temporarily insane during last year's sniper shootings, suggesting the teenager was a willing participant and recognized the consequences.

On the 18th day of Malvo's capital-murder trial, defense psychologist Dewey G. Cornell, under stern cross-examination from chief prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr., admitted that Malvo was aware that if caught, he could get the death penalty.

"He was certainly aware that what he was doing was illegal, and if the police came, he would be apprehended," Cornell said.

Cornell, a University of Virginia psychologist, spent three hours on the witness stand under Horan's relentless questioning. His voice rising and falling for effect, the veteran prosecutor was openly disdainful of Cornell's earlier testimony - that Malvo suffered from a mental disorder resulting from severe indoctrination by John Allen Muhammad, the convicted mastermind of last fall's sniper attacks.

"Was this the old Malvo or the new Malvo?" Horan asked repeatedly, focusing on Cornell's claim that Malvo first told the psychologist he was the triggerman in all of last fall's sniper shootings, before changing his account and fingering Muhammad as the primary shooter.

Malvo, 18, is on trial on two counts of capital murder in death of Linda Franklin, 47. She was felled with a single gunshot to the head as she and her husband unloaded purchases from their shopping cart in the parking lot of the Home Depot near Falls Church on Oct. 14, 2002. The trial was moved from Fairfax County to Chesapeake Circuit Court.

His lawyers have conceded that Malvo played a role in the sniper attacks, which left 10 people dead and three more wounded from the Washington suburbs to the Richmond area in October 2002. And they have disputed few of the facts presented by prosecutors.

But the lawyers are pursuing an insanity defense, contending that Malvo was brainwashed by Muhammad, transformed from young innocent to cold-blooded killer. They have called a procession of mental-health experts who have described the relationship between Muhammad and Malvo as one characterized by the older man's manipulations of the teen.

The experts have testified that Muhammad filled Malvo with hate and racial prejudice toward white people, forcing the teenager to listen to audiotapes of hate-filled speeches as he fell asleep. It was on that basis, the defense contends, that the two embarked on a purported plan to trigger a revolution by randomly picking off victims, one by one, and extracting a ransom from the government to build a utopian society in the Canadian woods.

Cornell was one of defense's most critical witnesses, having spent more 50 hours interviewing Malvo over the past several months at the Fairfax County Jail. He spoke in expansive terms about his conclusions - too expansive at one point, earning him a firm admonition from Circuit Judge Jane Marum Roush.

"Dr. Cornell, you're not in a classroom at U.Va.," she said. "You're in a court of law."

Horan wasted little time trying to undermine Cornell's direct testimony, and the professor wavered on several details.

For example, Cornell testified Monday that Malvo claimed to have been the triggerman in just one shooting, that of bus driver Conrad Johnson on Oct. 22, 2002, in Aspen Hill, Md. But under Horan's prodding, Cornell said Malvo also admitted to shooting two other people.

Cornell said Malvo told him that Keenya Cook, shot and killed in February 2002 in Tacoma, Wash., and Paul LaRuffa, wounded and robbed in September 2002 in Clinton, Md., were attacked on orders from Muhammad. Cook was killed for her family's role in Muhammad's divorce, while LaRuffa was robbed of $3,600 and his laptop computer, Cornell said.

Horan also got Cornell to admit that his first report on Malvo's mental state made no mention of the dissociative disorder that he now claims afflicts the defendant. It was only later, in an amended report filed after Malvo's lawyers had decided to pursue an insanity defense, that the disputed mental malady was noted.

Another psychologist, Steve Eichel, testified yesterday that Malvo now suffers from a dissociative disorder, but Eichel could not say whether the teen was similarly affected during the shootings.

Horan also suggested that Cornell might have crossed the ethical line between evaluation and therapy by engaging in frequent chess games with Malvo, a notion disputed by Cornell.

Cornell conceded that Malvo frequently acted of his own accord, contradicting his earlier testimony that the youth was under Muhammad's complete control. Cornell acknowledged, for instance, that the teenager ran away from his mother in late 2001 to be with Muhammad in hopes that Muhammad could help him become an American citizen and get into college.

Malvo's lawyers, meanwhile, focused on explaining for the jury how a youth could be converted into a "child soldier," suggesting that Muhammad programmed him to not feel remorse for killing.

"The purpose is to get children to do what they've been told without emotions getting in the way," said Neil Boothby, an international authority in the field of child soldiering.

Boothby, who has observed child soldiers in such war-torn areas as Rwanda and Kosovo, testified that guerrilla or state-sponsored leaders indoctrinate children to kill for a variety of supposedly just causes: religious, political, ethnic or racial.

Boothby described an "emotional numbing" process that can render child soldiers so completely brainwashed that the youths can operate free of direct adult supervision and will not turn on their leaders if captured. If a leader learns a child soldier has doubts about killing, Boothby said, the leader will often portray those moments as a sign of weakness.

Horan vehemently objected to Boothby's testimony, saying it was irrelevant to last fall's sniper attacks.

"I'm not aware of any war fought by children in the United States," Horan argued. Malvo "wasn't prepared for war, he was prepared for assassination."

Defense lawyers are nearing the end of their presentation, which could wrap up as early as today, when two experts are expected to say Malvo was insane at the time of the shootings.

Prosecutors then will have the opportunity to rebut the defense testimony before lawyers for both sides deliver closing statements and the case goes to the jury, possibly by the end of this week or the beginning of next week.

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