Psychologist: Malvo Killed Cats, Threatened Suicide

New York Times/December 8, 2003

Chesapeake, Va. -- Teen-age sniper suspect Lee Malvo killed cats as a child, threatened suicide if his mother left him and was looking for a father figure when John Muhammad, now a convicted murderer, entered his life, a psychologist testified on Monday.

Malvo, 18, is on trial in Virginia for one of 10 sniper-style shooting deaths that terrorized the Washington, D.C., area in October 2002. Muhammad, his alleged accomplice, was convicted of murder last month in a separate killing and jurors recommended the death penalty.

Malvo's lawyers contend he is innocent by reason of insanity because Muhammad, 42, brainwashed him at the time the killings were committed. If convicted, Malvo could face a death sentence or life in prison without parole for the Oct. 14, 2002, murder of FBI analyst Linda Franklin.

Dewey Cornell, a University of Virginia psychologist who interviewed Malvo for 54 hours over the past several months, testified that Muhammad filled Malvo with hate and racial prejudice toward white people.

Cornell said Muhammad made Malvo fall asleep to the sound of hate-filled speeches, including material selectively culled from the writings of civil-rights figure Malcolm X. One such tape began with music by reggae artist Bob Marley but then shifted to hateful speech by someone else, Cornell testified.

The psychologist said Malvo told him that Muhammad "taught him from very early on that right and wrong do not exist ... that right and wrong are made up by the government."

Cornell told jurors that Malvo suffered from a "dissociative disorder" at the time of the sniper shootings, and said this disorder would require extensive treatment over many years.

Seeking a Father Figure

In 2000 Malvo, then about 15, was seeking a father figure when he met Muhammad in Antigua, Cornell said. Malvo had developed a "lifelong longing" for a father figure after his mother uprooted him from his home in Jamaica and left his father, said Cornell, who added Malvo's mother beat the boy.

"His mother not only believed in spankings, she believed in beatings," Cornell testified.

Malvo pelted cats with marbles from a slingshot when he was a young boy, the psychologist said, and added, "He told me he hit some of the cats and probably killed some of the cats."

Malvo was also bullied by classmates and threatened suicide, Cornell testified.

At age 12, Malvo tied one end of a bedsheet around his neck and the other end to a tree, and threatened to jump if his mother left him, Cornell told jurors. The defense team has said Malvo's mother, Una James, traveled for work and frequently left her son with relatives and acquaintances -- including Muhammad.

Cornell said Malvo was a fan of "The Matrix," a movie that depicts humans being under the control of an evil computer-run government.

Cornell said Malvo watched the movie more than 100 times and identified with the movie's hero, who intends to free humans who are so oppressed they are unaware they are being dominated. Cornell said Malvo believed blacks were in a similar position.

The defense played a violent clip from the movie showing protagonists gunning down police and others.

"I'm not saying it controlled his actions," Cornell testified. But the movie, he said, might have desensitized Malvo to violence and spurred aggression.

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