No applause for defending Malvo

Sniper suspect's lawyer says he's attacked for vigorous defense of client

January 19, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

FAIRFAX, Va. - Who speaks for Lee Boyd Malvo now?

Not his father, Leslie Malvo. He has been absent from his son's life since the boy was 11.

Not his mother, Una James. Investigators say she abandoned him two years ago, handing him over to John Allen Muhammad as collateral until she could pay for forged immigration papers, and last month she was deported to Jamaica.

Certainly not Muhammad. He is in prison, facing murder charges and possible execution.

Prosecutors say that Muhammad and Malvo, pseudo-father and pseudo-son, roamed the country together for months in a homicidal rampage that culminated in the Washington-area sniper attacks that left 10 dead.

Malvo is in solitary confinement at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center here, awaiting trial in the case. When he turns 18 on Feb. 18, his only visitor is likely to be the new parental figure in his life, Todd G. Petit, a 31-year-old lawyer and Malvo's court-appointed guardian.

Virginia law requires that juvenile defendants be given a guardian if their parents are not available to help them in court. In that role, Petit stands out among the lawyers on Malvo's defense team. Petit has risen vigorously to the defense of his charge, speaking of him in more humanizing terms than other lawyers, often calling him Lee.

Prosecutors have been so annoyed by Petit's advocacy that they twice have tried to have him removed from the case. They objected to his questioning of a witness at hearings last week in which a Juvenile Court judge ruled that Malvo could be tried as an adult and could face the death penalty.

"Every time I try to do something for Lee, the prosecutors try to have me fired," Petit said in an interview from his office opposite the courthouse. "Even prosecutors have a responsibility to protect the rights of juveniles, but instead they just want to win at all costs."

In court, Petit is often the one Malvo turns to for conversation, at times flashing a broad smile, something that has rarely been on display in court hearings.

"When we first met, I told Lee that I would be the only person he talked to in the next few months who did not want to know about the allegations, which I think was somewhat comforting," Petit said.

"Since then," Petit continued, "we have talked about his history, where he grew up, where he lived, his parents, where he went to school, the conditions in the jail, his religious beliefs, his vegetarianism, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Washington Wizards."

Petit said he had tried to help Malvo with personal concerns, like his health and nutrition, his total isolation from other inmates and initial refusals by jail officials to give him access to a television, radio or reading materials.

In Malvo's first few weeks in jail, he was so bored, Petit said, that he tore up a business card and used it to play checkers with himself. "He had nothing else for entertainment other than to count the cinder blocks on the wall," Petit said. "That kind of isolation can drive anyone crazy."

Petit, who visits his client three or four times a week, was able to win Malvo access to magazines and books in the jail library. Malvo now has a copy of the Quran in his 6-by-15-foot cell and has read several books, including Gulliver's Travels.

Petit also lobbied for Malvo to be given more nutritious vegetarian meals and to be taken off a meatless loaf, normally reserved for prisoners being disciplined, that he said had been causing bloating, diarrhea and bleeding. Jail officials said they did not change Malvo's meals until a prison nurse ordered a new diet.

"I don't envy Todd's position," said one law enforcement official here who is sympathetic to Petit's efforts on Malvo's behalf. "There has not been a juvenile defendant here in a long time who has been treated so tough and been so demonized."

For Petit, this Virginia courtroom is a long way from the neighborhood in Springfield, Mass., where he was raised. After graduating from Northeastern University in 1994, Petit attended Catholic University law school and then joined the public defender's office in Fairfax County in 1997.

After leaving the defender's office, Petit went into private practice and decided to focus on defending juveniles, whom he says lawyers have a better chance of helping get their lives back on track than they do with adult clients.

He volunteers for the list of lawyers who can be appointed as guardians, and that was how he was selected to become Malvo's guardian.

Petit, who opposes the death penalty and who has advocated that there be more emphasis on rehabilitation in the criminal justice system, says he did not hesitate at taking the appointment, even though many of his neighbors were calling for Malvo's execution on the day of his arrest in October.

"Obviously if someone commits a crime, yes they need to be punished," he said. "But you have to look at more than what the offense is - what happened to them, what responsibility other people in their lives had."

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